I had big plans for reading over break—reading things that had nothing to do with work or research or writing, or at least only tangentially—but alas, work, work, work, family, and a little play intervened, along with the obvious festivities associated with these sacred days.
I did manage to get one book read, however: Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.
It’s very short at 144 pages, but deep and rich. Although Benedict refers to enough scholars and academic theories (both implicitly and explicitly), the book is not academic, and non-specialists will be able to read it, enjoy it, and grow in faith thanks to it.
Pope Benedict is a theologian—a good one, as opposed to the other kind—and so he offers profound insights into the significance of the infancy narratives, some subtle, some overt, some traditional, some original.
George Weigel discusses the book today at First Things, and instead of summarizing something myself, I’ll quote him on Benedict on the Magi:
As always with this scholar-pope, it’s the theology that counts, and Benedict’s theological reading of the Epiphany and the Magi story makes several important points.
The Magi—the Wise Men, the Three Kings—are crucial figures in salvation history, for they were the first Gentiles to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah promised to the people of Israel, through whom all the nations of the world will be blessed. That’s not a new insight, of course; what is striking in Benedict’s interpretation of their story is his expansion of the meaning of the Magi’s journey. The “Wise Men from the east,” he writes, “mark a ‘new beginning.’” In them, we find “the journeying of humanity toward Christ.”
Thus these Three Kings “initiate a procession that continues throughout history.” Moreover, they represent more than those who have actually found the Lord: “they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason” toward Christ. The Magi embody the truth of which Paul wrote in one of his great Christological hymns: “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16).
Then there is the star. After noting that this extraordinary phenomenon might have been the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in 7-6 B.C. (that is, just about the time of the birth of Christ), the pope gets down to the real point, which is not astronomy but theology. The stars, Benedict recalls, were once thought to be divine powers that controlled the fates of men and women: thus the phrase, “it’s in the stars,” and thus the pseudo-science of astrology. The Epiphany and the Magi story reverse all of this.
For “it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny,” the pope writes; “it is the child that directs the star.” Astrology is out; humanity, so to speak, is in. And so, Benedict continues, “we may speak here of a kind of anthropological revolution: human nature assumed by God—as revealed in God’s only-begotten Son—is greater than all the powers of the material world, greater than the entire universe.”
The star, perceived with the eyes of faith and understood by the tools of theology, tells a brilliant, if not fully comprehended, story. If the Wise Men were led by a star to find the newborn king of the Jews who is in truth the universal savior, Benedict tells us, “this implies that the entire cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state.” The “language of creation” points us toward the truth about the Creator, which is that God who creates is also God who redeems.
Thus the Epiphany points us toward the Cross (anticipated in the Magi’s gift of myrrh, which is also used at Jesus’ burial) and, ultimately, to the Resurrection.