The Catholic Thing
Music to Our Ears: a Review of the Pope’s New Book Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Cardinal Ratzinger approached the ageing John Paul II and asked to be relieved of his curial duties – and to be named head of the Vatican Library. We know Papa Wojtyla said no. We don’t know if he had a good laugh over it. Surely he sensed that God had different plans for his dear friend and close aide.

But as Benedict XVI, a scholar-pope if ever there was one, Ratzinger has not forsaken his love of books and writing, and thus we have today the third volume of his examination and exegesis of Jesus of Nazareth, the general title of the series; this one subtitled, The Infancy Narratives.

The pope has gone back to the beginning. Indeed, he shows how that’s exactly what the Gospel writers did in their genealogies: that Matthew worked forward from David to Jesus and Luke backwards to Adam . . . and to Jesus again. Their work – and it’s the mission of the whole of the New Testament – was to establish for future generations the identity of Jesus, just as the Lord had done patiently with the Apostles. “Who do you say that I am?”

In the synagogue in Nazareth, the Lord reads Isaiah’s proclamation of one who’ll bring glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and Jesus tells the congregation: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Besides speaking the literal truth, Jesus began then the process by which his identity is read back into the Torah and the prophetic books and would be proclaimed to the world as the fulfillment, not just of Judaism’s sacred promises, but of history itself – of human destiny.

The Holy Father draws out the mysteries of prophecy, the Annunciation, and the Gospel narratives with a scholarship so confident as to be magisterial. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is not an infallible encyclical, and so cannot be considered a part of the Magisterium. (Indeed, in the earlier volumes the pope has emphasized their personal nature.) But the book, like its fellows, is so authoritative, so elegantly written, and so . . . focused that it rises to whatever the highest standing a non-canonical book may possibly achieve.

By “focused,” I mean that, page after page, the pope manages to keep the true identity of Jesus present as a leitmotiv. His insights, both scholarly and spiritual, flow like music, which is fitting for the musician he is.

He writes:

“Rejoice” – as we have seen – is in the first instance [the Annunciation] a Greek greeting, and to that extent this pronouncement by the angel immediately opens the door to the peoples of the world: the universality of the Christian message becomes evident. And yet this is also taken from the Old Testament, and thus it expresses the complete continuity of biblical salvation history.

Interesting that throughout most of Scripture when an angel appears people duck for cover, being “sore afraid,” but not Mary. She is fearless, as, presumably, only one immaculately conceived could be.

The pope’s portrait of Joseph, a zaddik or just man, is among the most affecting parts of the book, by virtue of being so affectionate. The stepfather of Jesus is a “man with roots in the living waters of God’s word, whose life is spent in dialogue with God,” a man of the Gospel before there was a Gospel.

Of the essential mystery of the Incarnation, the pope writes – contra the claims that it is just a rehash of other ancient birth-of-a-god stories – it is literally and obviously true, even if it may have been a hidden truth while the Virgin was alive. But it was not . . .

. . . in the manner of a story crafted from an idea, an idea reformulated as fact, but vice versa: the event itself, a fact that was now [after the Assumption] public domain, became the object of reflection . . .

Again, a previously “impossible” fact is read back into what, after all, was an event unlike any that ever occurred or will occur again. And the early Christians surely had this from the lips of the Virgin herself.

    His Holiness at work

TCT’s readers are familiar with scholarly disputes concerning the year of Christ’s birth. Dating it at the start of the 1st century conflicts with some particulars of history: when Herod died; when Quirinius was governor in Syria; when an imperial census occurred. Benedict handles all this with elegant deftness, explaining, for instance, that Luke may be trusted, because he knew more about his world than any modern historian ever will.

The pope’s Nativity narrative won’t recast the Christmas pageant at St. Malachy’s Grammar School, but it does touch upon all the tender Gospel motifs: manger, animals, swaddling clothes, shepherds, Bethlehem, the star, angels, and the Magi. Each is understood in terms of Jewish tradition (and anthropology and archaeology) and, as ever, its fulfillment in Christ. Point-by-point, Benedict finds confirmation of millennia-old Catholic teaching. His questions are sometimes blunt, even chilly, but his answers are luminous.

The emerging identity of Jesus Christ is clarified – not in the Lord’s self-understanding, which is perfectly clear in the beginning, but in the minds of men and women: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna. Ancient promises are recognized, incarnate in a baby boy.

The pope is engaged here in that process begun in the Nazarene temple and carried out passionately by the Apostles, especially the four Evangelists, namely to demonstrate to a world unaware that the king of the universe has come into our world. They showed us, and Benedict XVI continues to show us, how everything in this crazy, violent world makes perfect sense through the peace of Christ. And what is almost stupefying is that Benedict presents it all in a little over 120 pages of text.

What a blessing to sit at the feet of so great a teacher.

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Gary Knight, November 21, 2012
The arrival of this book is very timely, certainly not a moment too soon. And I say that for various reasons not least the general neglect, in the western church of the post-modern era, of St. Joseph. So very much remains to be unpacked of this quiet man, chosen by the Holy Spirit to be, as it were, His 'best man' - entrusting his very spouse to the carpenter. To Joseph of old, an earthly kingdom was entrusted; to Joseph of the ever-new holy family, the heavenly kingdom was entrusted. More even than the steward praised for raising ten talents from one, Joseph was faithful in a 'very little thing' -- adding his 'fiat' to Mary's (and to Jesus' final (pre-resurrection) speech: "it is finished") -- and is entrusted with a very great: to be patron of the universal church. And no-one with a desire to deepen devotion to the Blessed Mother can bypass Joseph as teacher, because no-one had or has a greater devotion to her. And if anyone wonders what relevance Joseph has to the modern malaise, it is direct: he is a terror to demons of impurity, which lies at the root of modern moral heresies - from contraception, premarital sex and divorce, to sodomy and abortion -- each infecund in its own way. Thus Mary's chaste fertility is our life, and Joseph's chaste infecundity, chosen for her, is our hope. So all prayers for continued vocations that neglect to call on Joseph's prayers are destined to fail. Ite ad Joseph.
written by Aeneas, November 21, 2012
Already pre-ordered off Amazon! :)
But...this was a great review, and reminds me what a good choice it was to get this book, thanks Mr. Miner.

I've read that this is B16's last book in his "Jesus" series, thus capping it off in a trilogy (and what a trilogy it was!). Is this true? Or will there be more?
written by Brad Miner, November 21, 2012
@Aeneas: Yes, it's the final book in the series -- that, in any case, is the publisher's understanding and the word from the Vatican. But with this great man, who knows? In any case, I suspect this won't be his last book.
written by William, November 25, 2012
Thanks for the review. I look forward to reading the book.
Joseph as the "stepfather" of Jesus?

I have heard foster father, legal father, even human father, but not "stepfather". I do not think it is wrong to use terms like "foster father" but I think all these terms lessen Joseph's role and status in the family. And isn't a stepfather a man who marries a woman already with children that are not his?

On this, I like what Frs. Garrigou-Lagrange, M-D Philippe, and Federico Suarez say about Joseph's fatherhood: he is Jesus' father. In his book on Joseph, Suarez has an excellent section on "What true fatherhood is". Basically, if we evaluate fatherhood according to human fathers, then we are mistaken. God the Father is the source of fatherhood and so how He fathers should be the rule from which we view other fathers, especially St. Joseph.

To add, in his encyclical on St. Joseph, Pope Leo XIII said: "because he is the spouse of Mary and the father of Jesus Christ he holds, as it were, a paternal authority." (Quamquam pluries, 3)

As well, Bl. John Paul II said of him:
"And in this mystery, as in the Incarnation, one finds a true fatherhood: the human form of the family of the Son of God, a true human family, formed by the divine mystery. In this family, Joseph is the father: his fatherhood is not one that derives from begetting offspring; but neither is it an 'apparent' or merely 'substitute' fatherhood. Rather, it is one that fully shares in authentic human fatherhood and the mission of a father in the family. This is a consequence of the hypostatic union: humanity taken up into the unity of the Divine Person of the Word-Son, Jesus Christ. Together with human nature, all that is human, and especially the family - as the first dimension of man's existence in the world - is also taken up in Christ. Within this context, Joseph's human fatherhood was also 'taken up' in the mystery of Christ's Incarnation.

"On the basis of this principle, the words which Mary spoke to the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple take on their full significance: 'Your father and I...have been looking for you.' This is no conventional phrase: Mary's words to Jesus show the complete reality of the Incarnation present in the mystery of the Family of Nazareth. From the beginning, Joseph accepted with the 'obedience of faith' his human fatherhood over Jesus. And thus, following the light of the Holy Spirit who gives himself to human beings through faith, he certainly came to discover ever more fully the indescribable gift that was his human fatherhood."
(Redemptoris Custos, 3)

St. Joseph, the father of Jesus, pray for us.

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