December 16, 2012

Reading 'The Infancy Narratives'

I've been reading Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives on the Sundays of Advent and finished it this morning. The first thing I would say about it is that the reader does well to take seriously what the author says about the nature of the book, that it "is not a third volume, but a kind of small 'antechamber' to the two earlier volumes." It's a sweet little book of just a few chapters, but shot through with the sort of reflection that reveals a real devotion to the events recorded by Matthew and Luke. Particularly touching in this sense is the thoughtful section on the Virgin Birth:

It seems natural to me that only after Mary's death could the mystery be made public and pass into the shared patrimony of early Christianity. At that point it could find its way into the evolving complex of Christological doctrine and be linked to the confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God--yet not in the manner of a story crafted from an idea, an idea reformulated as a fact, but vice versa: the event itself, a fact that was now in the public domain, became the object of reflection--understanding was sought. The overall picture of Jesus Christ shed light upon the event, and conversely, through that event, the divine logic was more deeply grasped. The mystery of his origin illuminated what came later, and conversely the developed form of Christological faith helped to make sense of that origin. Thus did Christology develop.

Another section that makes a similar point in a more general way:

The two chapters of Matthew's Gospel devoted to the infancy narratives are not a meditation presented under the guise of stories, but the converse: Matthew is recounting real history, theologically thought and interpreted, and thus he helps us to understand the mystery of Jesus more deeply.

How refreshing that is for us who absorbed so many brittle doctrines about history and fact and meaning and God--e.g. 'yes, it's just a myth' or 'yes, it's just a symbol,' 'but that means it's more true!' or 'yes, the Bible is all true, and some of it really happened'--all of these doctrines that when they are heard by unbelievers convince them more deeply that we religious people are self-deluded and full of nonsense. More and more I tend to consign such teaching to the large category of things that seemed liberating to our parents in the faith but have not delivered on such hope.

It is said by some that the Church needs to be updated according to the times, in order to be more relevant, more comprehensible, and set free from her doctrines that are offensive to the cherished ideas of contemporary society. But what they forget is that the world doesn't hate the Church because of her teachings; the world hates the Church because it hated Jesus Christ first. And those are his words, not mine.

And why should Benedict's assertions seem strange? Do we not in just the same way work out our spiritual understanding of ourselves? It is a historical fact that in the early afternoon on August 29, 1992, I walked up and out of the basement of Freeman dormitory and down the street to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Quaker Hill, Connecticut, where a deacon of the Roman Catholic Church poured some water on me and invoked the Blessed Trinity. It really took place. You can go to the church and find a historical record of it in their office. But to know and understand what happened that day requires some theological reflection. That's how our spiritual lives work, history coming to be understood in light of God's eternity. Why should the Sacred Scriptures be any different?

I also enjoyed a little jab at academic theology delivered by the old professor. He is discussing the beginning of Matthew 2, in which Herod, following up on the inquiry of Magi, asks the chief priests and the scribes where the Messiah is to be born. Despite giving a learned and complete answer, Benedict notes that this knowledge does not prompt them to actually do anything:

The answer given by the chief priests and scribes to the wise men's question has a thoroughly practical geographical content, which helps the Magi on their way. Yet it is not only a geographical, but also a theological interpretation of the place and the event. That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable. Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result. Does this, perhaps, furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?

1 comment:

Greg Stone said...

Beautiful. "The old professor." Love it. He is the professor, indeed, and also the most amazing conduit for the Holy Spirit to teach. His works touch the intellect profoundly and as one stands in awe, one notices that even more, his words touch the heart and one is lifted upward toward Christ. I have never experienced a teacher of this caliber. I am so thankful that I came into the Church during his papacy.