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The protest of the Magi

At the beginning of the 1960s in certain even Catholic exegetic circles a wave of scepticism, if not actually self-sufficiency, concerning the canonical Gospels of the Infancy (the first two chapters of Matthew and of Luke) began to gather momentum. The cost was paid in particular by the episode of the Magi, whom people even came to the point of saying never existed. This provoked the circulation of a story, wittily referred to by Raymond E. Brown in his extensive study The Birth of the Messiah . In the United States one of these “denigrators of the Magi” received a hand-painted Christmas card of these Gospel figures who were angrily knocking at the door of the scholar who had perfunctorily disposed of them, calling him by name and asking him to let them in.

The anecdote is emblematic of the situation of the Gospels of the Infancy. These texts, all in all fascinating and famous but in reality extremely difficult, are a challenge to those who read and study them as well as an enchantment. Equally enchanting and challenging is the book –  the third and last of the only triptych in the history of the papacy –  which Benedict XVI wrote expressly on these Gospel passages, as terse as it is full of meaning,  each one “a Gospel narrative  in miniature, but essential”, according to Brown’s definition. Since his promise of the first part of the work on Jesus of Nazareth, published in 2007, the Pope had announced that he was writing about the infancy narratives, which he had then hoped to include in the second volume. When this came out in 2010, it was postponed for a “small monograph” that he was preparing.

The shorter Part Three, now entrusted to readers, is certainly more essential but no less demanding than Parts One and Two. Indeed the author’s reflection, in some passages barely suggested, becomes more radical and demanding. And the meaning of the double signature (Joseph Ratzinger and Benedict xvi) henceforth becomes clear,  to emphasize of course that it is in no way “an  exercise of the magisterium” but is “solely an expression of my personal search”, as the Pope said in the preface to his first volume. It is a search, however, that has not been limited to this past decade   Cardinal Ratzinger began to work on it in the summer of 2003 — but is the fruit of a whole life. And the Pope tenaciously wanted to conclude it, despite the immense burden he must bear every day as Successor of the first of the Apostles.

Described by the author as “a sort of small ‘antechamber’ to the two preceding volumes”,  Part Three is in fact their seal, in the effort to understand the text. What were the authors intending to say? And is their account true? Does it concern me? Before Scriptures considered to have been inspired by God, Benedict XVI says with conviction, “the question on the relationship of the past with the present is undeniably part of the same interpretation. The seriousness of historical research is not diminished with this but increased”. And the fundamental question with which Part Three begins is the one that Pilate addresses to Jesus  “Where are you from?” (Jn 19:9); the Pope’s entire work pivots on this. It is a question that prompts the journey of  the  Magi, in whom the Pontiff sees “the inner expectation of the human spirit, the movement of  religions and of human reason towards Christ”. The Magi knocking at the door of the unbelieving exegete thus calls to mind the one who is described in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me”.




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 9, 2019