A Mystery Glimpsed

N. T. Wright

(Published in The Times Literary Supplement 29 March 2013, 13.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)

Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. Translated by Philip J. Whitmore. 132 pp. London: Bloomsbury

Pope Benedict’s papacy will be remembered not least for its surprising conclusion. But Vatican insiders reveal an earlier surprise: the Pope’s habit of slipping away from other tasks in order to write about Jesus. Many topics must have clamoured for attention. But, as in his 2010 UK visit, Jesus remains his favourite subject. The media tried valiantly to talk about sex, but he went on talking about Jesus.

This is Benedict’s third Jesus-book. It is, as he puts it, ‘a small “antechamber”’ to the others. The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, here expounded, occupy a mere four chapters out of the eighty-nine in the gospels as a whole. But the same aim comes through: to probe the inner meanings of the texts, especially in the light of the Old Testament, and thereby to refresh and sustain a living Christian faith. There is considerable scholarship under the surface, from the church fathers to modern commentators (though without reference, curiously, to the massive tome The Birth of the Messiah (2nd edn., 1993) by Raymond E. Brown, perhaps the most famous Roman Catholic New Testament scholar of the last generation). This is basically a work of devotion, designed ‘to help many people on their path toward and alongside Jesus.’ And for that one needs, not a book of debates and footnotes, but a sense of what the Christian faith isfor. Herod’s ‘scripture experts’, who told the Wise Men where the Messiah was to be born, ‘do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result.’ Does this, asks the author with a glint in his eye, ‘furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?’

Eschewing such things, the Pope expounds and applies the Bible – which might seem a rather obvious thing for a bishop to do. But until comparatively recently Catholic teachers, faced with the birth narratives, might well have highlighted tradition, and the Marian dogmas, rather than scripture. Not this teacher. The Pope does, unsurprisingly, affirm the basic historicity of Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth, including his mother’s virginity, but without going back to Mary’s own ‘immaculate conception’. When he does glance at the ‘did it happen’ questions, his arguments remain, shall we say, somewhat basic: Luke was ‘closer to the sources and events than we could ever claim to be.’ His aim is not to ‘prove’, but to expound, which he does with literary, theological and pastoral sensitivity, drawing out scriptural resonances and devotional application. Mary is ‘the daughter of Zion in person’, who when pregnant ‘becomes the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the Lord truly dwells.’ The promise of ‘Emmanuel’ in Isaiah 7, like the prophecy of the ‘suffering servant’ in Isaiah 53, is ‘a word in waiting’, incomprehensible until strikingly fulfilled in Jesus. The child born in Bethlehem is to be born in us today. And so on.

At the same time, Benedict draws attention to non-Jewish parallels: the Pharaohs, whose miraculous births legitimated their cult and authority; Virgil’s famous ‘Fourth Eclogue’ with its prophecy of a child whose birth would usher in a golden age; the Augustan dream of a new time of peace, symbolized in Rome’s Ara Pacis. Some apologists would avoid all this: might it not suggest that the Christmas story was the same kind of propaganda? The Pope, whose title ‘pontifex’ goes back after all to the Caesars and beyond, wants to use it positively, seeing a confluence of Jewish and non-Jewish ideas into a single new stream. The natural world itself is brought in: Saturn and Jupiter, in conjunction in 7 BC, lead the Magi to Bethlehem. The Wise Men thus ‘represent the religions moving toward Christ, as well as the self-transcendence of science toward him’ (one of the rare moments when we suspect that the German original was clearer). The whole cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to humans.

The mystery of the incarnation, however, points not to a smoothly progressing revelation a la Theilhard de Chardin, but to the darkness of Calvary. Grace may indeed fulfil nature, but only through crucifixion, which casts its long shadow forwards over Mary, Joseph and the Christ-child. The Bible and the Cross, traditionally the home territory of Protestants, turn out, not for the first time, to be at the centre of this Pope’s vision of Christian faith.

As with Benedict’s earlier works, including the Encyclicals, one question continues to nag. Do the parallels with the Pharaohs and Augustus suggest that the Christmas stories might after all be claiming a this-worldly kingdom? If not, then what? How does the pax Christi of which the angels sang relate to the pax Augusti? They may co-exist, suggests Benedict. Worldly peace is a good thing, even if Caesar regularly oversteps his mark. So the kingdom of God ‘is of another kind’: ‘it applies to man in the depths of his being, and it opens him toward the true God.’ Yet there are hints of something more than simply a ‘kingdom’ of private piety. The reason people persecute the church, says Benedict, is that they can tolerate no kingdom but their own. They ‘would like to destroy this powerless king, whose mysterious power they still fear.’ Might it have been a glimpse of that mystery that gave the Pontifex inner permission to lay down his own Roman power?