Music to Our Ears: a Review of the Pope’s New Book

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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.