Benedict Reflects on Jesus's Birth: The Pope Fastens on the Poignant Image of Mary, Who Freely Accepts the Burden of Her Unique Pregnancy

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A pope writing a book is an event for publishing and a risk for the papacy. Readers are a contentious lot, and the chances of criticism only increase when the topic at hand is the New Testament.

As Pope Benedict XVI approaches Jesus' birth, he fastens on the poignant image of Mary in Luke's Gospel. She listens to the strange news that the angel Gabriel announces, and freely accepts the burden of her unique pregnancy. "Through her obedience, the Word entered into her and became fruitful in her."

To Benedict's mind, Mary and the church are at one, because each confronts an opportunity to say yes to God in the midst of uncertainty. Mary and the church surmount their travails by means of faith and enter the timeless kingdom of Christ.

Benedict is aware of discrepancies within the infancy narratives (the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke). Informed by Gabriel of the impending birth, Mary says in Luke 1:34, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?"

"This question seems unintelligible to us," Benedict writes, because by this point, according to Matthew's Gospel, Joseph and Mary were indeed married, although not yet living in the same residence (Matthew 1:18). The thought that Matthew and Luke derive from different and sometimes incompatible sources does not appeal to him. What remains in his mind is a riddle or mystery.

Because he restricts his focus to the infancy narratives, Benedict does not compound the riddle. He does not ask why, elsewhere in the Gospels, the disciple Philip identifies Jesus as Joseph's son (John 1:45) and the townspeople of Nazareth have the same understanding (Luke 4:22), Those passages have made other scholars wonder; an entire tradition of ancient Near Eastern Christianity concluded that Joseph was Jesus' natural father.

Would Mary have been less obedient if that were the case?

At the end of this elegant little volume, Benedict indirectly suggests the kind of answer he would recommend to such questions. But because his horizon is the infancy narratives, and because he sees the historical task as understanding what texts say (rather than what lies behind them), he takes Jesus' miraculous birth as a fact.

Other discrepancies nonetheless emerge. Was Jesus born during the reign of Herod the Great (as Matthew says), or when (as Luke specifies) Quirinius oversaw a census as governor of Syria? If Matthew is right, Jesus had to have been born before Herod's death in 4 B.C. If Luke is right, the birth was in 6 A.D. In this case, Benedict does not refer to a mystery, but uses Matthew to correct Luke. That causes him to follow some scholars in backing the date of Christmas up a few years. He favors the story of the Magi tracking a star, and identifies that with a conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn. Yet planetary convergence is not rare; a later dating--another scholarly option--can be approved by observing the alignment of Saturn and Mars by Oct. 23 1n2 A.D.

Benedict does not wade too deeply into such weeds, yet he is well aware they are present. They occupy his mind enough that, at the end of his discussion of the Magi, he asks, "Are we dealing with history that actually took place?" Lie concludes, citing Cardinal Jean Danielou, that no essential of faith would suffer if Matthew were more a theological meditation than a statement of fact, but that in the end history and interpretation are combined in Matthew. …