In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI puts forth a beautifully written and scripturally rich analysis of the infancy narratives of the Gospels. At first glance, it may appear that what is contained in the Gospels regarding the birth and youth of Jesus is limited, but Benedict reveals the incredible depth contained within relatively few words. In his work, Benedict provides a seamless biblical catechesis on how the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ is a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies. It is evident this book was written out of a deep fervor to catechize and evangelize the Good News of the birth of Christ our Savior. For as St. Augustine says, “The thread of our discourse is affected by the very joy that we ourselves experience, and as a consequence is delivered more easily and received more gratefully”
As a matter of principle, all catechesis should be Biblical catechesis since Scripture is God’s way of speaking to his people. Without Scripture, there is nothing to teach. “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching” (2 Tim 3:16) When analyzing any Church teaching or understanding of anything regarding Christianity at all, one must do so in light of the Word of God. Dr. Petroc Willey states “Scripture leads the presentation of doctrine. It is not a mere add-on or afterthought.” (emphasis author’s) Pope Benedict’s love for the Scripture and his understanding of its importance to catechesis is evident in the Infancy Narratives. The entire book is woven together with Scriptural references. The teaching stems directly from the Scripture rather than the Scripture following the teaching, against which Willey Warns.
Biblical catechesis and evangelization are inseparably linked. To teach the good news of the Gospels is to proclaim the Kingdom of God as Jesus did. In Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism: Sidelights on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Benedict explains, “…to evangelize means to acquaint men with Jesus as we come to know him through the Gospels.” Through his catechesis on the infancy narratives, Benedict is acquainting his audience with Jesus from his very conception as the Incarnate Word. Entering into this world as completely dependent baby, Jesus unites himself with all of humanity and makes himself accessible through his unity with man. The infancy narratives in the Gospels are a key point in evangelization as we get to identify with our Lord in the most fundamental way, laying the foundation for understanding his message later.
Before beginning a comprehensive Biblical catechesis and evangelization on any topic, it is important to establish the divine authorship of the Bible. Without affirming divine authorship, the Bible is essentially reduced to a collection of stories written by many people over the course of thousands of years and therefore, becomes a questionable source of authority. Monsignor Eugene Kevane examines in the second chapter of his book, Jesus the Divine Teacher the authorship of the Bible and how it must be considered in Biblical catechetics. After all, all of the major religions of the world have religious texts, so without confidence in the authority of the Holy Bible, there is no way to distinguish Christianity as being the Truth. Kevane identifies the unity of the Bible in its entirety from Genesis to Revelation as the evidence of a divine author. “This unity is wonderful to behold when the eye of faith is rightly cultivated to see it in such a variety of literary forms used by human authors over so great a span of time – from the archaic modes of expression and teaching adopted and used by Moses in the Book of Genesis through upward of two millennia to the writing of the New Testament by Jesus’ Apostles and their helpers.”
Kevane also examines the dangers of the “purely rational exegesis”, when during Scriptural study, passages are taken out of context and examined in isolation. Doing this takes away from the unity of the Bible and makes the Divine authorship much more difficult to believe. Kevane believes the antidote to this exegesis lies within the document and guidelines from the Holy See with regard to Biblical interpretation. In interpreting the Bible through the lens of these documents, Christian philosophy is preserved and modern philosophy cannot seep in to distort their interpretation. In addition to preserving the Christian philosophy, the historical, archaeological and linguistic contexts are preserved. Kevane further recognizes Cardinal Ratzinger, eventually Pope Benedict XVI, as a leader in the renewal of the “Patristic approach” to Scripture interpretation. The Patristic approach involves not only the Word, but Tradition. The Church Fathers have been handing down the intended interpretation of Scripture in the Deposit of Faith since the Apostles first began to catechize. The Church has protected that Tradition and it is therefore important to protect truthful interpretation under the guidance and protection of the Holy See. Quoting Ratzinger, Kevane says with regard to the reading of the Bible outside of the Holy See, “An exegesis which lives and understands the Bible no longer with the living organism of the Church…becomes archaeology, a museum of past things. Concretely, this is seen in the fact that the Bible falls apart as Bible, to become nothing more than a collection of heterogeneous books.” This patristic approach of providing historical context is evident in the Infancy Narratives as Benedict inquires whether the birth of Jesus really ever happened or if the story is just a myth. He concludes that through the unity of the Bible and in the historical context provided by the Church Fathers, the birth of Christ is absolutely true.
This unity of the Bible is the foundation for the beautiful statement in Dei Verbum, “God, the inspirer and author of both Testaments, wisely arranged that the New Testament be hidden in the Old and the Old be made manifest in the New.” The Gospels do not stand alone as the only source in our history of salvation, rather the Old and New Testament work together to tell our entire story. In his catechesis on the infancy narratives, Benedict beautifully weaves Scriptural references from the Old and the New Testament together to show how the birth of Jesus Christ has always been God’s plan for our salvation and how Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises from the beginning of time. Two of the Gospels include Jesus’ genealogy which directly ties Jesus into the Old Testament by tracing his lineage back to David, Abraham and Adam. However, this genealogy does not only point backwards, but it looks forward. Therefore, in the unity of the Bible we see, “From the beginning of the genealogy, then, the focus is already on the end of the Gospel, when the risen Lord says to the disciples: ‘Make disciples of all nations’” (Mt 28:19). In the particular history revealed by the genealogy, this movement toward the whole is present from the beginning: the universality of Jesus’ mission is already contained within his origin.”
While the Old and New Testament reveal a unity, it is important to note that all of salvation history points to the cross at the center. Therefore, everything leading up to the crucifixion in both Testaments points to the cross. Presenting all catechesis in way that makes the cross the center of the teaching is the most appropriate way to evangelize the extent to which God loves us. As the crucifix is the symbol of perfect love and charity, it should never be far from any catechesis. Through his study of the infancy narratives, Benedict finds a number of ways in which the very birth of Christ points to his eventual crucifixion. The baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, foreshadows the bandages in which he will be wrapped as he is placed in the tomb and the manger represents the altar on which the Lamb will be sacrificed. The ox and ass that surround Jesus in his humble entrance into the Earth represent the Jews and the Gentiles. He is born amongst the very ones he has come to save. The magi who come in search of the “king of the Jews” call to mind the inscription on Jesus’ cross. Even the gifts the Magi present point the center of Salvation History. “The gold points to Jesus’ kingship, the incense to his divine sonship, the myrrh to the mystery of his Passion.” Benedict also points out here how myrrh appears again after his death, when the women come to the tomb to anoint his body. “He no longer needed myrrh as a protection against death because God’s life itself had overcome death.” Jesus birth is best understood in light of his purpose, our salvation.
One of the points on which scholars agree is that one the most critical purposes of a Biblical catechesis is to make all of Church teaching and everything about Jesus Christ relevant to us today. One cannot be inspired to take up his cross and follow Jesus if he does not see how Jesus is applicable to his life or his eternal salvation. Benedict talks about how the largest threat to Christianity in the twentieth century has not been those in opposition to the Church, rather it is indifference because Christianity seems insignificant in today’s culture. Kevane spends several pages of his book explaining how people use God and religion to address problems with humankind. “Above all, however, the study of religion helps us to see better the wretchedness of the human condition. We grope toward God in the dark.” The more relevant the answer of God is to our human condition, the easier it is to grope for him in the darkness. Without relevance, there would be nothing for which to grope. Willey spends time explaining the necessity for appropriate presentation of Biblical catechesis as it applies to a specific audience. A presentation that does not have any relevance to an audience will be fruitless, as they will have no frame of reference in which to apply the message. Designing the presentation of catechesis around the specific audience allows them to find a meaning in the message as it applies to their life. The General Directory for Catechesis quotes the General Catechetical Directory (1971) by saying that catechesis should “be concerned with making men attentive to their more significant experiences, both personal and social; it also has the duty of placing under the light of the Gospel, the questions which arise from those experiences so that there may be stimulated within men a right desire to transform their ways of life.” It then goes on to describe the importance of the methodological approach to catechesis in order to best meet the needs of the audience.
The Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, expresses the importance of the Word of God and that each Christian should enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ with Scripture as the foundation for that relationship. The document also points out the same dangers Kevane warned against in reading Scripture outside of the Church “which spread distorted and manipulative reading of sacred Scipture.” In answer to this problem, the Verbum Domini explores how Scripture should be handled within unique pastoral situations. In the Infancy Narratives Benedict addresses the pastoral needs of the lay faithful in a way that remains in line with the Verbum Domini’s recommendations. “The laity need to be trained to discern God’s will through a familiarity with his word, read and studied in the Church under the guidance of her legitimate pastors.” Given his role as Pope at the time of the writing of his book, combined with his extensive scholarship of the Church Fathers, the laity can be assured of the soundness of Benedict’s analysis of the infancy narratives of the Gospels.
In light of the universally agreed upon idea that the message of Jesus Christ should be made relevant to today, Benedict lays out two purposes in his analysis of the infancy narratives in the foreword. “Firstly one has to ask what the respective authors intended to convey through their 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?” It is evident through these questions that Benedict recognizes the necessity for Jesus to be relevant to his readers. The catechesis that follows in the remainder of the book is Benedict’s analysis of the infancy narratives of the Gospels in light of the Old Testament prophesies and how the Incarnation came into the world as an infant, affecting us profoundly on the most basic and fundamental level.
At the time of Jesus’ conception and birth, Israel was waiting for a different kind of savior. Under oppressive Roman rule, the Jewish people expected a political leader to deliver them from their current living conditions. However, “The divine messenger who spoke to Joseph in the dream explains the nature of this salvation: ‘He will save people from their sins.’” It would have been difficult for the Jewish people to understand how this was relevant to them considering the oppressive leadership and extreme taxation that was suppressing their very way of life. It also would have been confusing to the Jewish people how anyone other than God could forgive their sins. “The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.” Again, pointing toward the cross as the center of salvation, his relevance to our lives is not immediately understandable at the moment of his birth. Rather, it something that is slowly revealed to us throughout history, his ministry, and ultimately through the Paschal Mystery.
Another way Benedict applies the Gospel message to our lives today is through the example of Mary’s response to the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus. Mary, having taken a vow of virginity and having no understanding of how a conception could take place, trusts God and his plan. “So Mary appears as a fearless woman, one who remains composed even in the presence of something utterly unprecedented.” She also internalizes everything that has been communicated to her and keeps and guards the word of God in her heart. As Benedict explains, this establishes her as the image of the Church. Just as Mary reflects upon and guards the word of God, so does the Magisterium. As we look to the Magisterium for wisdom and guidance in our lives today, we can see that through the divine plan, that process was established before Jesus was even born. He laid the foundation for his Church from the beginning, so that we could always trust what has been handed down as we proceed on our own journey. Mary’s trust in God also serves as an example for how we should trust God’s plan for our own lives. We can look to Mary and see her fearless “Yes” and her reflective approach to his Word, and understand how we should approach his revelation in our own lives.
Also relevant to us today is Joseph’s response to the conception and birth of Jesus. Benedict lays out that Joseph was a just man and a man who foreshadows the Beatitudes that his son would later preach. Joseph is a devout follower of the laws of the Lord, but does so in love. This is illustrated in his initial desire to divorce Mary quietly. Because he is just, he feels bound and obligated to the law, but in love, he does not want to cause Mary any shame. Benedict explains that even before Jesus’ birth, Joseph is living the Gospel. “He does not embody the form of externalized legalism that Jesus denounces in Mt 23 and that Paul opposes so strenuously. He lives the law as Gospel. He seeks the path that brings law and love into a unity.” The message of Jesus is foreshadowed in the announcement of his birth. Just as we can look to Mary as an example of trust, we can look to Joseph as someone who exemplifies the beauty in the unity of the old and new – the law and love.
In order to make Jesus relevant to our culture today as much as throughout history, Benedict describes Jesus as a contradiction and it is important to understand what this means. Simeon introduces the contradiction in his prophecy to Mary: “a sword will pierce through your own soul.” (Lk 2:35) Benedict says, “The theology of the glory is inseparably linked with the theology of the Cross.” The Resurrection can only come after the Passion. The beautiful can only come about through the ugly. Jesus was born in order for this contradiction to exist and that theme has been carried out all throughout history.
One of Benedict’s most beautiful statements in the Infancy Narratives explains how this contradiction is carried throughout time and is as applicable to these times as ever. “God is love. But love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves. It is not a romantic ‘good feeling.’ Redemption is not ‘wellness,’ it is not about basking in self-indulgence; on the contrary it is a liberation from imprisonment in self-absorption. This liberation comes at a price: the anguish of the Cross. The prophecy of light and that of the Cross belong together.” Through our culture today, we are led to believe that instant gratification, personal happiness and satisfaction are the things which we should seek. The “good feeling” Benedict mentions is the goal in our modern world. Followers of Christ must live counter-culturally. They should recognize that through the contradiction that is Jesus’ we find true love. It is through self-sacrifice and self-giving love that we find the true glory and redemption that was intended for us through Jesus’ sacrifice. Benedict calls out Christians today in a profound way to recognize the contradiction between the glory and the Cross and to live it out.
Since Scripture is the Word of God communicated to us so that we might know him and his plan for our Salvation through his Son, we must understand that every word has deep meaning and implications for us. Therefore, regardless of how little appears to be said regarding the conception, birth and childhood of our Savior, it contains something very meaningful to us. We cannot just brush off small phrases or passages as being fluff, rather we must look to our Mother Church to tell us what every word means for us. Benedict pastors to us through his scholarship on the infancy narratives in light of Tradition, and tells us how this beautiful birth story affects us at the very core of humanity. We must view Benedict’s work as something to be studied and understood, so that we might better understand what God is telling us and so that we may enter into a personal relationship with him and his Son through his Word.
- The Bible (New American Bible Student Edition).
- The First Catechetical Instruction (Ancient Christian Writers Vol. 2). New York: Paulist Press, 1978.
- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration. New York: Doubleday, 2007.
- Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. New York: Doubleday, 2012.11
- Benedict XVI. Verbum Domini. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2010.
- Congregation for the Clergy. General Directory for Catechesis. Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1997.
- Kevane, Eugene. Jesus the Divine Teacher. New York: Vantage Press, 2003.
- Paul VI. Dei Verbum. (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965).
- Ratzinger, Joseph. Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997.
- Willey, Petroc, et al. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008.
Augustine. The First Catechetical Instruction (Ancient Christian Writers Vol. 2) (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 17.
 Petroc Willey, et al. The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Craft of Catechesis (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 110.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 53.
 Eugene Kevane, PhD. Jesus the Divine Teacher (New York: Vantage Press, 2003), 42.
 Kevane, Jesus the Divine Teacher, 54.
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives. (New York: Doubleday, 2012), 56.
 Pope Paul VI. Dei Verbum. (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1965).
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 5.
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 68.
 Ibid., 102.
 Ibid., 107.
 Ratzinger, Gospel, Catechesis, Catechism, 37.
 Kevane, 4.
 Willey, 111.
 Congregation for the Clergy. General Directory for Catechesis. (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1997), 117.
 Benedict XVI. Verbum Domini. (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2010), 73.
 Ibid., 84.
 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, xi.
 Ibid., 42
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 41.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 86.