Pope Benedict on the Infancy Narratives

I just finished reading Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, the final installment of Pope Benedict’s three-volume book series on Jesus. Here, as the name suggests, his focus is on the Gospel accounts of the birth and early days of Jesus.

There is much in the book worth reflecting on. Among the most important is something we see played out in so many ways in the infancy narratives, “the paradoxical element in God’s way of acting…greatness emerges from what seems in earthly terms small and insignificant, while worldly greatness collapses and falls.” At various points the Pope highlights examples of this in the Gospel accounts, starting with the announcement of Jesus’ birth to an unknown young woman in an unknown small dwelling in an unknown small town, and ending with the Magi, who find Jesus not in the King’s palace, but in a small home.

Just as God works in ways that seem surprising to us given the standards of the world, so, too, must we abandon worldly ideas of what constitutes greatness. At one point in the book, Pope Benedict observes that “one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.”

Another point in the book crucial to our understanding of both God and our role in the world is the Pope’s discussion of the interrelationship between grace and freedom. He begins by talking about the two extreme positions: first, “the idea of the absolutely exclusive action of God, in which everything depends on his predestination,” and second, “a moralizing position, according to which everything is ultimately decided through the good will of the human person.”

Neither of those extremes is correct. Instead, “the overall testimony of Scripture” makes clear that grace and freedom “are thoroughly interwoven, and we cannot unravel their interrelatedness into clear formulae.” God loves first, but we are free to love in return or to refuse God’s love. It is God’s plan to save, but he asks Mary’s consent to participate in his plan; “the only way he can redeem man, who was created free, is by means of a free ‘yes’ to his will.”

There are many other things I liked about the book: the discussion of the joy and of hope, the way the Pope talks about our response to that which we cannot understand, and the challenge to “make haste…where the things of God are concerned.”

I was less impressed with the book’s tremendous concern with establishing that the events contained in Matthew and Luke’s narratives were historical rather than theological. My reaction to his efforts to refute those who see things like the virgin birth, the census and the visit of the Magi as theological stories reminded me of my reaction in my college Problem of God course to various “proofs” of the existence of God: wholly unnecessary to those who already are convinced and completely unpersuasive to those who aren’t.

With respect to the last of those examples – the Magi, Benedict quotes Jean Danielou as “rightly” observing that the adoration of the Magi “does not touch upon any essential aspect of our faith. No foundations would be shaken if it were simply an invention of Matthew’s based on a theological idea.” (Danielou, nonetheless, concludes that this event was historical.) Many might have the same reaction to some of the other things the Pope is concerned with proving the historicity of.

Whatever one thinks of the literal truth of the stories in the infancy narratives, there is much to reflect on in this book.