Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives
by Joseph Ratzinger, translated by Philip J. Whitmore
This book follows Ratzinger’s two earlier Jesus of Nazareth works, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration and Holy Week: From the Entrance in Jerusalem to the Resurrection. In it, he explains the theological, contextual and historical significance of the infancy narratives from the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke.
Here is a selection of the points discussed.
“Where are you from?”
Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies end with Joseph. Mary marks the point of the “new beginning”, carrying Jesus, Whose origin is no man but Who is a “new creation”. Through Him, we have a new genealogy that we can trace back to God.
The Annunciation of the Birth of John the Baptist and the Annunciation of the Birth of Jesus
Zechariah, an ageing priest, hears the angel’s message during the Temple liturgy, while Mary, a young almost-nobody, receives her message in a personal setting in a small town. The contrast of the circumstances of the two annunciations begins the different missions of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Annunciation and Birth of John
John’s story begins in the Old Testament world, with his parents both from priestly families. As a representative of the Old Covenant priesthood, John points the way to Jesus.
Annunciation to Mary
“Rejoice, full of grace!” The angel’s greeting does not begin with the expected Hebrew shalom (“peace be with you”) but the Greek chaire (“rejoice”, “hail”). This is the same “rejoice” that appears in Luke 2:10 (“I bring you good news of a great joy”); John 16:22 (“I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you”); and John 20:20 (“The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord”).
In Greek, “joy” and “grace” share the same root, highlighting this combination in Mary as well as the joy-cum-grace that is to come through her – Jesus and His message.
The Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem
Luke situates Jesus in a concrete place and time: the “eternal logos”, our true God, truly became man.
Historically, this is during the reign of Augustus Caesar. An inscription indicates that Augustus (Greek: “worthy of adoration”) was expected to be the one to bring about “universal peace”. He was called “saviour” and “redeemer”, titles that belonged to gods like Zeus. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, these terms refer exclusively to God.
By his decree for “all the world” to be registered, Augustus Caesar indirectly sets in motion the fulfilment of Micah’s prophecy that the “shepherd of Israel” would be born in Bethlehem (5:1-3). Unknown to him, this is the “fullness of time”, the time for the appearance of the true Saviour and Redeemer of all peoples, and so Augustus’ reign ushers in the period of peace foretold by the Old Testament prophets, but brought about not by him but by the Son of God.
“God, who is the God of Israel and of all peoples, shows himself to be the true guiding force behind all history.”
From the historical and political context, we then look at Jesus’ birth in humble circumstances.
There is “no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6), and significantly, 33 years later, he is “crucified outside the city” (Hebrew 13:12). From the time He is born, Jesus is excluded from what would be considered “important and powerful”, but it is He who is the “truly powerful one”.
The exact spot of Jesus’ birth is still debated today but early Christians living in Palestine were able to point out the cave (one of many in Bethlehem that were used as stables) in which Jesus was traditionally believed to have been born. When the Romans overran Israel, they took this story seriously and turned the cave into a shrine for Tammuz-Adonis.
What we do know from Luke is that Jesus is placed in a manger. St. Augustine explains how the manger, the place where animals had their food, was turned into the “table of God”. Thus, from His lowly birth, Jesus brings about our redemption.
In addition, the first ones to hear of His birth are shepherds in the area, representing the “lowly” and also known for their “watchfulness”. In humility, silence and waiting, the Lord comes to us.
The Law required mothers to be “purified” 40 days after the birth, and first-born sons to be dedicated to God. Mary brought into the world the One who would purify it but she and Joseph still obey the Law. Families were not required to go to the Temple for the sacrificial offerings but Jesus makes a first public appearance in the Temple, with this event marking His dedication to God as well as Simeon’s and Anna’s recognition that hope had come. Their prophecies draw the “light” of hope that Jesus brings together with the way of the Cross.
The Wise Men from the East and the Flight into Egypt
The Magi show how the really wise are the ones who “search for truth, and for the true God”. A later Magi, mentioned in Acts 13:10, represents the result of resisting Jesus and His witnesses.
The Magi are outsiders, and they ask for the “king of the Jews”, using a Gentile form of reference; this is the same term that is used in Pilate’s inscription (the Jewish people would have used the term “king of Israel”). This is an early reference to the universality of Jesus’ kingship and a link to the Cross as well.
Although their arrival troubled “all of Jerusalem”, even Herod’s experts do not appear moved to respond to the new king, and it is the Magi, the Gentiles, who go on to search for Him and to pay homage. Hence, we have the coming of the King of all the universe, as indicated by the Magi’s gifts, who is rejected by the people among whom He appears.
Once the wise men find and adore Jesus, the star disappears. It was not the star that defined or determined His life – it is He who “directs the star”.
Flight to Egypt and Return to the Land of Israel
There has been some debate about whether the killing of the innocents actually took place. It is known that Herod executed three of his own sons, so it was not out of character for him to have ordered the murder of boys two years and under.
This put Jesus on the road to Galilee. Joseph is instructed to go there when they return from Egypt, and the fact that Jesus was from Galilee later becomes “proof” that people would cite when they argue that He could not possibly be the Messiah.
The 12-Year-Old Jesus in the Temple
Jesus’ parents went on the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover, as part of the “great pilgrim community”.
The three days during which Jesus is missing and His parents keenly experience His absence anticipate the three days from His death on the Cross to His resurrection. From the human perspective, His wandering off from the family party could be seen as an act of “disobedience or inappropriate freedom” but in essence, this was Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will and the work that the Father had set out for Him, work that He “must” do. Here, it is the same “must” that is used when the Gospels refer to Jesus’ “readiness to submit to God’s will”, for example, that He “must suffer greatly, be rejected, be killed and rise again” (Mk 8:3).
Nevertheless, He does return with His parents and “was obedient to them”, and grew in “wisdom” and “stature” in His family and community setting.
In contrast to Jesus’ focused actions to follow the will of the Father, Mary and Joseph do not understand clearly His words or behaviour. Mary’s response is to “ponder” and “(keep) all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:50-51), which she does earlier (Luke 2:19) as well, a useful pointer for all believers in their response to hearing the word of God.
In summary, the book explains what at Jesus’ birth was already clear about His identity, His fulfilment of the promise of hope and salvation for all mankind, and the Cross and resurrection that were to come. God is with us.