Monday, March 18, 2013

"The Infancy Narratives:" Compelling Gift from a Pope Emeritus

In the days of Sede Vacante, between Feb. 28, when Pope Benedict XVI resigned and March 13, when Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the Holy See, I felt the profound silence of the former pope as he withdrew from public life and into a world of monastic prayer.

It felt clear we won't be hearing from this man, so often maligned within the Church and without, ever again. What has been lost to so many, including millions of us Catholics, is that this man is a gifted writer and theologian, a student of St. Augustine and a deep thinker in his own right. I felt the loss and, as a kind of homage to him and as a reminder to me that his legacy continues, I spent my morning commutes listening to the now-emeritus Pope's latest book - Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives.

I find this book deeply reassuring and have since passed it along to an Evangelical friend, who I know will find it inspiring. This is a book for any of us who call ourselves Christians and for anyone who is curious about the Christian claim. The book comforts me because it reminds me the Holy Spirit moves among is the men who lead our church and because it gives us a taste of a Pope whose absence is palpable to me.

This is a slim volume of brilliant Biblical exegesis. Specifically, the Pope Emeritus unwraps the  Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke to explain Christ's human and heavenly origins. To be honest, I worried after listening to the first chapter that I would not enjoy this work. The first chapter deals with the genealogy of Christ, a subject which involves extensive use of numerology, and a subject in which, for whatever reason, I have little interest. Additionally, this chapter is heavily footnoted so the reader's narrative is frequently interrupted by citing the chapter and verse of each fact. This is not exactly easy listening.

As I continued to listen to this book, however, I found myself mesmerized, or at least as mesmerized as one can be while driving 70 miles an hour on an interstate in morning traffic. I am not atypical as a Catholic; through the decades I  have read the Bible in bits and pieces, but never have studied it formally or taken it upon myself to read it systematically. But I found that, thanks to weekly Mass going, I am intimately familiar with every incident in Christ's early life mentioned in the subsequent chapters of this book. In fact, it is a testimony to the Liturgy of the Word that these stories have become imbedded in my understanding of the Christian claim.

This book added depth and meaning to those familiar stories. It taught me, for instance, the links between the stories of Christ's infancy and the prophesies in the Old Testament. It also speaks powerfully of both the reality and the symbol of everything that was spoken or happened in Christ's early years.

For example, the manger in which Jesus was born is real. But it also is a symbol. You see, mangers are where animals eat their food. And our food, our bread of life, is Christ Himself.

The Emeritus Pope writes: Augustine drew out the meaning of the manger using an idea that at first seems almost shocking, but on closer examination contains a profound truth. The manger is the place where animals find their food. But now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited.

Every Pope offers his gifts to the world. Every other human being does too, for that matter. Our former Pope was neither a media darling nor an astute administrator. But I am gratified he has left us  this book and others so we might understand the heart of the man who worked all his days - and continues to now - to fix our gaze on Christ.

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