VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Tuesday presented “The Infancy Narratives,” the last part in Pope Benedict’s trilogy on the life of Jesus. The book will go on sale around the world on Wednesday with an initial print run of a million copies.
Here are some excerpts selected by the publishers for early release.
On Mary’s role in world history:
Yet most important of all is the fact that the genealogy ends with a woman: Mary, who truly marks a new beginning and relativizes the entire genealogy. Throughout the generations, we find the formula: “Abraham was the father of Isaac . . .”
But at the end, there is something quite different. In Jesus’ case there is no reference to fatherhood, instead we read: “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1:16).
In the account of Jesus’ birth that follows immediately afterward, Matthew tells us that Joseph was not Jesus’ father and that he wanted to dismiss Mary on account of her supposed adultery. But this is what is said to him: “That which is conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit” (Mt 1:20). So the final sentence turns the whole genealogy around. Mary is a new beginning. Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived through the Holy Spirit.
The genealogy is still important: Joseph is the legal father of Jesus. Through him, Jesus belongs by law, “legally,” to the house of David. And yet he comes from elsewhere, “from above”-from God himself. The mystery of his provenance, his dual origin, confronts us quite concretely: his origin can be named and yet it is a mystery. Only God is truly his “father.”
The human genealogy has a certain significance in terms of world history. And yet in the end it is Mary, the lowly virgin from Nazareth, in whom a new beginning takes place, in whom human existence starts afresh.
On the historical and theological framework of the nativity story in Luke’s Gospel:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled” (Lk 2:1). With these words, Luke introduces his account of the birth of Jesus and explains how it came to take place in Bethlehem. A population census, for purposes of determining and collecting taxes, was what prompted Joseph to set off from Nazareth for Bethlehem, together with Mary, his betrothed, who was expecting a child.
The birth of Jesus in the city of David is placed within the overarching framework of world history, even though Caesar was quite unaware of the difficult journey that these ordinary people were making on his account. And so it is that the child Jesus is born, seemingly by chance, in the place of the promise. The context in world history is important for Luke.
For the first time, “all the world,” the ecume¯ne¯ in its entirety, is to be enrolled. For the first time there is a government and an empire that spans the globe. For the first time, there is a great expanse of peace in which everyone’s property can be registered and placed at the service of the wider community. Only now, when there is a commonality of law and property on a large scale, and when a universal language has made it possible for a cultural community to trade in ideas and goods, only now can a message of universal salvation, a universal Saviour, enter the world: it is indeed the “fullness of time.”
On the joy of Christmas:
The angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shines around them. “They were filled with fear” (Lk 2:9). But the angel takes away their fear and announces to them “a great joy, which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:10f. ).
They are told that, as a sign, they will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased’” (Lk 2:12-14).
According to the evangelist, the angels “said” this. But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present. And so, from that moment, the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent. It continues down the centuries in constantly new forms and it resounds ever anew at the celebration of Jesus’ birth. It is only natural that simple believers would then hear the shepherds singing too, and to this day they join in their caroling on the Holy Night, proclaiming in song the great joy that, from then until the end of time, is bestowed on all people.
On astrology and religion in the Magi story
Gregory Nazianzen says that at the very moment when the Magi adored Jesus, astrology came to an end, as the stars from then on traced the orbit determined by Christ (cf. Poem. Dogm. V 55-64: PG 37, 428-429).
In the ancient world, the heavenly bodies were regarded as divine powers, determining men’s fate. The planets bear the names of deities. According to the concept prevailing at the time, they somehow ruled over the world, and man had to try to appease these powers. Biblical monotheism soon brought about a clear demythologization: with marvelous sobriety, the creation account describes the sun and the moon-the great divinities of the pagan world-as lights that God placed in the sky alongside the entire firmament of stars (cf. Gen 1:16f. ).
On entering the Gentile world, the Christian faith had to grapple once again with the question of the astral divinities. Hence in the letters he wrote from prison to the Ephesians and the Colossians, Paul emphasizes that the risen Christ has conquered all the powers and forces in the heavens, and that he reigns over the entire universe.
The story of the wise men’s star makes a similar point: it is not the star that determines the child’s destiny, it is the child that directs the star. If we wish, 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.
Reporting By Philip Pullella