Pope Benedict’s enthusiastically awaited third volume on Jesus of Nazareth was presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair on 10-14 October. This volume, which completes a trilogy, is simply entitled, in the Italian, L’infanzia di Gesù.
Even as this year’s Frankfurt event opened, a series of translations was being negotiated by publishers in 32 countries. The original manuscript is in German, but renderings into 20 languages are either in progress or planned; e.g., English, French, Spanish, Polish, and Portuguese.
Volume I, a runaway bestseller, focused on Jesus’ mission and preaching; Volume II, on Jesus’ Entrance into Jerusalem and his Resurrection; Volume III, in fulfillment of a promise, on Jesus’ infancy, as revealed by the evangelists Matthew and Luke.
Volume III, like Volumes I and II, reflects not only the Holy Father’s profound faith in the Son of God Incarnate, but also the very latest, most sophisticated insights into the Gospel narratives as read by the Church from the age of the Church Fathers right up to this very year of the Lord, 2012. And in this process, the Pope provides clear, orthodox, and meaningful solutions to questions being raised today about the Christmas story.
For one thing, Pope Benedict maintains without reservation that Christ our Lord appeared on the authentic stage of world history. In other words (contrary to some pseudosophisticated theories), the Jesus of Christian faith is certainly the Jesus of history. Thus, writes the Holy Father in his Introduction: "Jesus was born at a time that can be accurately determined. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, Luke … gives an accurate and precise date to that historical moment…." (See Lk 3:1 sqq.).
The Jesus of faith, then, is not a metaphor that emerged from ancient legends. He was, of course, the Logos to which the Prologue to St. John’s Gospel refers – "the creative reason for everything," as Benedict puts it. (Logos is a Greek term for "reason.") This Logos took on human nature; and this means, to cite the Pope again, that Christ "took on the context of time and space." Besides, denying that Jesus was a historical figure is to ignore 2,000 years of Scriptual Tradition.
The raison d’etre for Volume III of this trilogy about Christ, the Holy Father explains, is to help us listen to the Word "in a way that may become a personal encounter and, in listening together with the disciples of Jesus across the ages," attain sure knowledge of "the real, historical figure of Jesus."
Pope Benedict adds that the correct interpretation of the Infancy Narratives demands two steps. First, one must ask himself or herself what Matthew and Luke were intending to explain in their texts during the time period in which they wrote. Second, one cannot nonchalantly leave these texts "in the past," as it were. Questions that need to be asked by each reader are multiple. "Does it concern me? And if it does, … how so?"
For Benedict’s own part, he confesses: "I have taken pains to enter into dialogue with the texts in this way. By so doing, I am well aware that this conversation in the interweaving of past, present, and future can never be complete and that every interpretation lags behind the greatness of the biblical text."
L’infanzia di Gesù
("The Infancy Narratives") was formally presented to the Church and to the world on 20 November; over a million copies comprised the initial print run. Chapter I reflects on Jesus’ genealogy as presented by both Matthew and Luke; Chapter II focuses on the world-changing event of the Annunciation and Mary’s Yes of Consent, with which the history of salvation began.
Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is analyzed in Chapter III, wherein the worldwide census under the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, ushers in the advent of "a universal Savior." Every word describing the Nativity is replete with deep meaning, which Pope Benedict contemplates with brilliant insight and compelling relevance.
Next, the Visit of the Magi (Magoi, in Latinized Greek) is analyzed from the viewpoints of history, linguistics, science, psychology and, of course, soul-searching.
The final focus of this book is on the closing gesture of Jesus’ childhood; namely, the three days of his apparent absence during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem’s Temple. After this, Jesus’ public ministry comes into view. This, of course, opens with Jesus’ Baptism in the Jordan.
As Catholics, we thank the Lord for a leader, a scholar and a writer of Pope Benedict’s caliber. Like his immediate predecessor, John Paul II, his knowledge, courage and faith continue to astound us.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.