Sunday, December 9, 2012

In Which I Review the Pope's New Book

I received a free copy of the final volume to be published in the Jesus of Nazareth trilogy by Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI. (I entered a facebook "share" drawing.) It is really the first in the series, since it covers The Infancy Narratives, although it was the last to be written and published.

Pope Benedict XVI's predecessor, Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote two or three books while serving as pope--these were books of memoir and of poetry--and this was an innovation for a reigning pope. Before his election as pope, Benedict XVI, as Joseph Ratzinger, published many theological books on Catholic doctrine, liturgy, morality, etc. Ignatius Press has been his official U.S. publisher for many years, and even has his early work, The Theology of History in Bonaventure in their catalog. This trilogy is his last work as a theologian--as distinct from the works he will write as the Pope, in his role as the teaching authority of the Catholic Church (encyclicals, apostolic constitutions, etc). In the first book of the series, he stated:

I have attempted to go beyond the mere historical-critical interpretation applying new methodological criteria, which allows us to make a properly theological interpretation of the Bible and that naturally requires faith, without by so doing wanting in any way to renounce historical seriousness. I do not think it is necessary to say expressly that this book is not at all a magisterial act, but the expression of my personal seeking of the "Lord's face" (Psalm 27:8). Therefore, every one has the liberty to contradict me. I only ask from women and men readers the anticipation of sympathy without which there is no possible understanding.

Image Books, of the Random House publishing group, and Ignatius Press, however, shared publication of this trilogy, and Image published this last volume:

The momentous third and final volume in the Pope’s international bestselling Jesus of Nazareth series, detailing how the stories of Jesus’ infancy and childhood are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.

In 2007, Joseph Ratzinger published his first book as Pope Benedict XVI in order “to make known the figure and message of Jesus.” Now, the Pope focuses exclusively on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life as a child. The root of these stories is the experience of hope found in the birth of Jesus and the affirmations of surrender and service embodied in his parents, Joseph and Mary. This is a story of longing and seeking, as demonstrated by the Magi searching for the redemption offered by the birth of a new king. It is a story of sacrifice and trusting completely in the wisdom of God as seen in the faith of Simeon, the just and devout man of Jerusalem, when he is in the presence of the Christ child. Ultimately, Jesus’ life and message is a story for today, one that speaks to the restlessness of the human heart searching for the sole truth which alone leads to profound joy.

You may have read or heard some media stories about how the pope forbids animals in creches or denies that the angels sang when they announced the Good News to the shepherds of Bethlehem. This article identifies some of the problems:

The problem of the media misreading has become noticable enough that Spanish theologian Jose Maria Gil Tamayo, writing in L’Osservatore Romano, has criticized the media for missing the point of the Pope's book and focusing instead on whether the Pope says a donkey and an ass were present at Jesus' birth. The Washington Post, in turn, has reported on the theologian's criticisms. The Post piece tries to present the theologian's criticisms and winds up itself misrepresenting Benedict's position in the process. For instance: "Benedict also writes that the angels who announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds probably didn’t actually sing, and that the three wise men could have been inspired by a 'theological idea' rather than by a 'historical event'.”

When the shepherds in the field (Lk 2:12-14) encounter the multitude of angels praising God for the birth of Jesus, are the angels "singing"? Benedict notes that the evangelist says that the angels "said" "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased". Does that amount to what the Post reports Benedict as maintaining, that "the angels ...probably didn't actually sing"?

Benedict observes, "Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present" (p. 73). He goes on to link this "song" with the singing of Christmas carols and the singing of the Gloria at Mass. That does not amount to saying that the angels "probably didn't actually sing", as the Post reports. Indeed, Benedict appears to maintain that in some sense they did sing, even though Luke doesn't say they did.

It's a trivial point, really, but it illustrates the two big problems with much media coverage of the book in particular and of many religious topics in general: getting the basic facts wrong and missing the point. The real story is (1) that Benedict, pace many critical exegetes, assumes the historical reality of the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, whether the angels sang or merely recited their Gloria; and (2) the meaning Benedict gives of their Gloria and the angelic epiphany to the shepherds.

That controversy aside, what Pope Benedict does in his analysis of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew is practice a dual exegesis: examine what the authors intended at the time of their inspired writing and then examine how the Scriptures influence us today--what should be our response?--how does this affect me and my relationship with Jesus and with the world He redeemed? Pope Benedict also emphasizes the continuity and fulfillment of the New Testament and the Old.

He begins at the end: Jesus before Pilate and Pilate, the Roman, asking him, "Where do you come from?" because Pilate does not know what to do with Jesus: (paraphrasing) You say you are a king but your kingdom does not belong to this world? What does that mean? If you are a king what king did you succeed? Ratzinger continues to trace this issue of where Jesus is from, citing those scriptures in which onlookers are amazed at His teaching and miracles by saying, (paraphrasing) how can this be? we KNOW who he is; where he is from; who his mother is and his family--he can't have that kind of power!

That discussion leads directly to the very different genealogies in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke: the first with the Davidic line, the second showing Jesus as the New Adam. (Chapter One).

Then he begins to parallel the annunciations--by the Angel Gabriel of St. John the Baptist's conception to Zechariah in the Temple; by the Angel Gabriel of Jesus's conception to Mary in Nazareth; and of Mary's pregnancy's source to St. Joseph in a dream. Ratzinger meditates on Mary's role and Joseph as a Just Man; how they both respond to God's call so wholeheartedly and faithfully. (Chapter Two).

He makes an interesting and to me surprising choice here: he does not follow the parallel of Jesus and John in the Gospel of St. Luke to the Visitation (Elizabeth's greeting and Mary's Magnificat) and John's birth and naming (Zechariah's Benedictus). I wonder why?

Turning toward Bethlehem, Pope Benedict addresses the political context of Jesus' birth: the Roman rule of Augustus in Judea--and the contrasting peace the emperor and the babe in the manger offer the world. Completing that chapter (Chapter Three) he explores the significance of the manger, the swaddling clothes, the Angels' song and the shepherds' joy. Benedict concludes the chapter with an elegant reading of the Naming and Presentation in the Temple, with the prophesies of Simeon and Anna.

Ratzinger dedicates Chapter Four to a detailed discussion of the visit of the Magi, their signficance, their interaction with Herod, the Star, their worship of Jesus--and of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as Joseph again obeys the message of a dream to travel to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.

The last passage to be addressed, in the Epilogue, is from Luke's Gospel: what Catholics know as the fifth Joyful mystery of the Rosary: the Finding in the Temple.

Throughout, Pope Benedict balances very technical exegetical issues, citing other scripture scholars, with subtle and challenging reflections on these infancy narratives. For example, writing about the prophecy of Simeon in the presentation at the Temple:

We are not talking about the past here. We all know to what extent Christ remains a sign of contradiction today, a contradiction that in the final analysis is directed at God. God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself. God, with his truth, stands in opposition to man's manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride.

God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic "good feeling". Redemption is not "wellness," it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary, it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together.

Or, on the significance of the baby Jesus in the manger "because there was no room for them in the inn":

For the Saviour of the world, for him in whom all things were created (cf. Col. 1:16) there was no room. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head" (Mt. 8:20). He who was crucified outside the city (cf. Heb 13:12) also came into the world outside the city.

This should cause us to reflect--it points toward the reversal of values found in the figure of Jesus Christ and his message. From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms. Yet it is the unimportant and powerless child that proves to be the truly powerful one, the one on whom ultimately everything depends. So 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.

Those are much more controversial and challenging statements than whether ox and ass lay feeding beside the manger or the angels sang to the shepherds! Although this is a short book, it takes time to read and reflect upon. I'm more eager now than before to read the other two volumes of Jesus of Nazareth, which I already have, and have started the first book published in the series, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration.

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