Everything You Wanted to Know About the Birth of Christ (but were afraid to tweet @Pontifex)

I received a comped copy of this book for review, but have not taken any other compensation  nor was this post subject to any editorial review.  (Besides the eagle-eyed grammar police of the commentariat).

I read Jesus of Nazareth:  From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration earlier this year, as part of the two-person book club I set up with the Dominican friar who sponsored me at my baptism.  Although Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is part of the same project, the two books felt very different tonally to me, and I’d recommend them for different audiences.  The Pope’s first book, covering the early part of Jesus’s public life, read a lot more like a narrative, and his treatment of the infancy narratives feels a lot more like a reference book.

I was reading the first book to learn more about Jesus-the-Person, instead of Jesus-the-Metaphysical-Claim, and I found it wonderfully discursive.  The Pope drew from Orthodox tradition to draw parallels between Jesus’s baptism and his Passion (some Orthodox icons show a tomb-shaped pool), and to remind us that baptism is our participation in Jesus’s death so we can die to sin.  He speaks to a rabbi friend about what in Jesus’s teachings is an affront to Mosaic law.  There’s a lovely convergence as all these different traditions, scholars, and works of art support the central theme: Jesus instituting the Sacraments throughout his life and ministry.

The new book is a bit more tightly focuses and much briefer. Ultimately, I wouldn’t expect to read The Infancy Narratives straight through, or even as a part of my preparations for Christmas.  I’d keep it nearby to refer to as other readings in Advent and the Christmas season made me wonder “But why does the Church believe…”  “What exactly does the Bible mean by…” etc.  The Pope has put together a thorough and well-footnoted body of research on the nuances and historical controversies of the infancy narratives, helpfully grouped thematically.  It’s useful to take along on a theological jaunt.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • deiseach

    Nit-picking commentariat reporting for duty! This is the third volume of a three-volume set (just in case anyone thinks there are just two books); the first is “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism to the Transfiguration” and the second is “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week”. So anyone who is going to purchase or borrow these, you now know you have one-third more reading to do than you expected :-)

    Having done my duty as a finicky nit-picker, I now let the second shoe drop in my poetry selection. You have had the Advent poem, now for the Christmas one (again, by Patrick Kavanagh, and again, from the 1940s):

    A Christmas Childhood
    I
    One side of the potato-pits was white with frost –
    How wonderful that was, how wonderful!
    And when we put our ears to the paling-post
    The music that came out was magical.

    The light between the ricks of hay and straw
    Was a hole in Heaven’s gable. An apple tree
    With its December-glinting fruit we saw –
    O you, Eve, were the world that tempted me

    To eat the knowledge that grew in clay
    And death the germ within it! Now and then
    I can remember something of the gay
    Garden that was childhood’s. Again

    The tracks of cattle to a drinking-place,
    A green stone lying sideways in a ditch
    Or any common sight the transfigured face
    Of a beauty that the world did not touch.

    II

    My father played the melodeon
    Outside at our gate;
    There were stars in the morning east
    And they danced to his music.

    Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
    To Lennons and Callans.
    As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
    I knew some strange thing had happened.

    Outside the cow-house my mother
    Made the music of milking;
    The light of her stable-lamp was a star
    And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

    A water-hen screeched in the bog,
    Mass-going feet
    Crunched the wafer-ice on the pot-holes,
    Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

    My child poet picked out the letters
    On the grey stone,
    In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
    The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

    Cassiopeia was over
    Cassidy’s hanging hill,
    I looked and three whin bushes rode across
    The horizon – The Three Wise Kings.

    An old man passing said:
    “Can’t he make it talk” –
    The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
    And tightened the belt of my box-pleated coat.

    I nicked six nicks on the door-post
    With my penknife’s big blade –
    There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
    And I was six Christmases of age.

    My father played the melodeon,
    My mother milked the cows,
    And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
    On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

    A happy, holy and peaceful Christmas to everyone and a prosperous and blessed New Year.

  • Joe

    I love to read commentaries on the life of Christ, and the Pope’s is excellent, but my all time favorite is Fulton Sheen’s.

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  • Arizona Mike

    Some interesting ideas the Pope brought up in this book include the possibility that the infancy narratives were not included in two of the testaments due to a desire to protect Mary’s privacy until after her death, and that the citing of Mary’s thoughts indicate she was a first-hand source for Luke. He also mentions that the date of the census, which doesn’t seem to jibe with Josephus’s dating, could be explained by the likelihood that it was a prolonged, years-long process.

    Merry Christmas, Leah!

    • wloch3

      “As [Ernst] Martin [in The Star That Astonished the Wotld] points out, there are [a number of] compelling reasons to regard 1 BC as the true date of Herod’s death … As a clincher, it has recently been discovered that Josephus himself dated Herod’s death to 1 BC; a sixteenth century copyist’s error is responsible for the incorrect date, which has been propagated to modern editions of Josephus. 
      “If we conclude that Herod did die in the spring of 1 B.C., we are free to add the years 3 B.C. and 2 B.C. to our search for the Star of Bethlehem. What was happening then? The year 2 B.C. marked the 25th anniversary of Caesar Augustus’s rule and the 750th anniversary of the founding of Rome … To honor their emperor, the people were to rise as one and name him pater patriae, or ‘Father of the Country.’ Now, getting the people of an empire to do something ‘spontaneously’ requires a great deal of organization. And so an enrollment, or census, was ordered: ‘In those days, a decree went out…’” (http://www.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=1996&month=12)

  • Dan C

    Quite frankly, the pope is weak on Luke. Luke is the Gospel he cites least and relies on least.

    Let’s look at some of the strenghts of the pope’s writings on Jesus of Nazareth. He is heavy on the discipleship themes of Mark, the book of the calling to discipleship. Matthew is his most favorite cited Gospel and the pope sees much of the Christ he has served verified and justified in this Gospel. This is the Christ Present in the Church. The Mystical Body of Christ.

    Luke is the book of the poor. Written for a poor audience, it differs in tone substantially from its seeming pair, Matthew. It presents the Gospel for the poor, that hey are Blessed. And woe to the rich (not a mamsy-pamsy “blessed are the poor in spirit.” And if one has a question as to the economic commitment of Luke, check out how he treats violations of sharing in Acts…)

    The infancy narratives are at least 50% Luke and this is the pope’s weak spot. The pope’s book will not have strong familiarity with themes of the palpable overcoming of oppression in the Magnificat nor the understandings of this sense of “captive” Israel from the same poem-prayer of the teenage Mary.

    The source material, in the lived spiritual context of Lucan Gospel, is unfamiliar to this scholarly pope who has focused so strongly on serving Christ embodied in the Eucharist and the Church, but less so in understanding and having a personal relationship with Christ in the poor.


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