Pope Calls Book on Christ's Birth an 'Antechamber' to Vols. I and II
"Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives" on Sale Today
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By Kathleen Naab
NEW YORK, NOV. 21, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Just in time for Advent, the final part of the Pope's book "Jesus of Nazareth" went on sale today. This last portion of Benedict XVI-Joseph Ratzinger's work deals with Jesus' conception, birth and childhood.
Commonly referred to as Volume III of the work, the Pope says in the Foreword that this final book, just 132 pages, is "not a third volume, but a kind of small 'antechamber' to the two earlier volumes on the figure and message of Jesus of Nazareth."
The English translation of the German original is published by Image Books, the Catholic-interest imprint of Random House, Inc..
"The Infancy Narratives" has four chapters and an epilogue, and is, in the Holy Father's words, his attempt, "in dialogue with exegetes past and present, to interpret what Matthew and Luke say about Jesus' infancy at the beginning of their Gospels."
Joy and grace
Chapter 1, "Where Are You From," considers the "question about Jesus' origins as a question about being and mission."
Chapter 2 is on the annunciation of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. Referring to the angel's greeting to Mary, "Rejoice, full of grace!" the Holy Father points out the connection between joy and grace. "In Greek, the two words joy and grace (chará and cháris) are derived from the same root. Joy and grace belong together," he writes (page 28).
The Pope offers an in-depth reflection on Mary's response to the angel, including how it is different from Zechariah's response to the angel's message regarding the birth of his son, John the Baptist.
"She does not remain locked in her initial troubled state at the proximity of God in his angel," he writes, "but she seeks to understand. So Mary appears as a fearless woman, one who remains composed even in the presence of something utterly unprecedented. At the same time she stands before us as a woman of great interiority, who holds heart and mind in harmony, and seeks to understand the context, the overall significance of God's message" (page 33).
The Pope goes on to acknowledge that Mary's question to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" is a mystery. He recognizes the explanation put forward since St. Augustine, that Mary had taken a vow of virginity. "But," he writes, "this theory is quite foreign to the world of the Judaism of Jesus' time, and in that context it seems inconceivable." The Pontiff goes on to note other theories before concluding with this: "So the riddle remains -- or perhaps one should say the mystery -- of this saying. Mary sees no way, for reasons that are beyond our grasp, that she could become the mother of the Messiah through marital relations. The angel confirms that her motherhood will not come about in the normal way after she has been taken home by Joseph, but through 'overshadowing, by the power of the Most High,' by the coming of the Holy Spirit, and he notes emphatically: 'For with God nothing will be impossible'" (page 35).
One section of the book is dedicated to "Virgin Birth -- Myth or Historical Truth." There, the Pope makes the observation: "If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope" (page 57).
Chapter 3, on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, offers this meditation, regarding the fact that there "was no room for them in the inn": "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 this 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" (page 67).
The last chapter of "The Infancy Narratives" includes a consideration of astronomy as context for a discussion on the star that led the Wise Men from the East, as well as a look at who those men were. It addresses the overall question of the historicity of the two chapters of Matthew's Gospel dedicated to Jesus' childhood.
The Holy Father proposes that these chapters "are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought through and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply" (page 119).
"The Infancy Narratives" completes the Pope's series on Jesus of Nazareth. The first book in the series, published in 2007, dealt with the period from Jesus' baptism through the Transfiguration. The second volume, released before Lent 2011, covered Christ's passion and death. Both those volumes were immediate bestsellers.