Well, we are now officially in Advent, preparing ourselves for the celebration of the birth of Our Savior in this new liturgical year.
Many of us may be somewhat depressed with the state of the U.S. economy or the recent national elections, but, remember, we can and must believe what Pope Benedict XVI told Americans in 2008, "God is preparing a new springtime for Christianity."
Remember, the Church has never stopped growing from the time of the Savior’s birth, and that persecution has been with us from the beginning and will be with us until the Second Coming, when all will be settled perfectly and justly.
Happily, from Pope Benedict’s inspired decree, all Catholics are celebrating a Year of Faith to commemorate the opening of the great ecclesial moment of the last 50 years, the Second Vatican Council and, 30 years later, the issuing of what was perhaps its most important product, the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
As you know, Pope Benedict has followed the example of Blessed Pope John Paul II: not simply being content with writing magisterial documents, but continuing his academic work as arguably one of the best theologians of the last century and most certainly the greatest of this new century.
The happy news is that he completed the third volume of his exegetical history Jesus of Nazareth with his new book, entitled The Infancy Narratives (Image Books, a division of Random House; the book is featured in our "Last-Minute Christmas Gift Guide" in section C).
Pope Benedict, in a short foreword, explains his method, "I am convinced that good exegesis involves two stages. Firstly, one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through text in their own day — the historical component of exegesis. But it is not sufficient to leave the text in the past and thus relegate it to history. The second question posed by good exegesis must be: Is what I read here true? Does it concern me? If so, how? With a text like the Bible, whose ultimate and fundamental author, according to our faith, is God himself, the question regarding the here and now of things past is undeniably included in the task of exegesis. The seriousness of the historical quest is in no way diminished by this: On the contrary, it is enhanced."
As we approach Christmas, the timing of the book’s release could not be better. It is deep in its theological content yet also leaves room for other opinions. Pope Benedict often quotes other theologians, including non-Catholic ones who might differ from his views. It is accessible to the patient reader who is interested in the early years of the Lord.
I read the 179-page book in one sitting and plan to reread it before Christmas. You may think you know the story well, but you surely will be delighted at Pope Benedict’s well-founded and sometimes-astonishing insights.
For example, in this description of the Nativity, the Holy Father beautifully connects the first moments of Jesus’ life to his last: "Mary wrapped the Child in swaddling clothes. Without yielding to sentimentality, we may imagine with what great love Mary approached her hour and prepared for the birth of her child. Iconographic tradition has theologically interpreted the manger and the swaddling clothes in terms of the theology of the Fathers. The Child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death from the outset; he is a sacrificial victim. ... The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar."
All the well-known personages and the roles they played are present in The Infancy Narratives, from Herod to the Three Kings, with, naturally, special insights on the Holy Family as they journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, on to Egypt and back to Nazareth.
Dare I make a suggestion to His Holiness? How about a final chapter giving your conjectures about the hidden life of the Holy Family in Nazareth? After all, that is where most of us are called to seek holiness in the middle of the world, and it’s the core message of the Second Vatican Council, which we are celebrating this year. In any case, the book, which can easily fit in a Christmas stocking, is the perfect Christmas gift for friends and family to help, as the saying goes, "Keep Christ in Christmas."
Opus Dei Father C.J. McCloskey III is a Church historian and
research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.