The day after Benedict’s latest book “The Infancy Narratives – Jesus of Nazareth” – was published on November 20, Vatican officials found some headlines they were not expecting.
“Killjoy pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions,” read one tabloid headline, claiming that Benedict had snubbed traditions such as animals in nativity scenes and caroling.
“Pope sets out to debunk Christmas myths,” ran another.
Holy Scrooge! Some blogs unceremoniously branded Benedict the new Grinch that stole Christmas and one rocketed him to the “top of the grumpy list for 2012.”
And then there was this zinger headline from a web news site: “Pope bans Christmas”.
Coming little more than a month before Christmas, it was the last thing the Vatican needed – another image problem for the pope.
Alarmed by some of the headlines, the Catholic social network XT3 felt compelled to run a blog that dissected the media’s coverage of the book.
It was headlined: “The pope has not banned Christmas”.
So what was all the fuss about?
In the 137-page book, the pope states a fact: that in the gospels there is “no reference” to the presence of animals in the stable – actually, it was probably a cave – where Jesus was born.
Bloggers had a feast with that, with one calling it “Bombshell number one”.
What some neglected was that just a few sentences down, the pope states that even today, “No representation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass”.
He explains: The tradition of the ass and ox came from reflecting on parts of the Old and New Testaments. Christian iconography then adopted the motif early in Church history to show that even animals knew Jesus was the son of God.
KEEP ON CAROLLING
In other words, the tradition that has developed over the centuries matters more than an unverifiable fact, at least as far as the case of the ox and ass in the stable is concerned.
“I think that what people need to realize here is that the pope is trying to be as historical as he can be,” said Father Robert Dodaro, professor of patristics, or the study of early Church writings, at Rome’s Patristic Institute.
“He wants to see the biblical narratives as history where possible but he is also trying to explain details in the narratives that cannot be historically verified,” he said.
Some bloggers, taking their cue from television and website headlines, even wrote that the pope had spoken out against Christmas carols.
In the book, the opposite was true.
Benedict says the evangelist Luke wrote that at the moment of Jesus’ birth the angels “said” the well-known phrase “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased”.
But in the next line he explains that “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song”, that “the angels’ song of praise has never gone silent”, and that it is “only natural that simple believers (even today) join in their caroling on the Holy Night”.
So, no need to cancel any school performances.
Another section of the book that irked some bloggers is where the pope restates what biblical scholars have known for decades, if not centuries – that Jesus was born several years earlier than the first century AD.
Benedict writes that since King Herod died in 4 BC, Jesus was probably born “a few years earlier”. He attributes the erroneous fixing of the year of Jesus’ birth to a miscalculation by the monk Dionysius Exiguous some 500 years later.
“No one’s faith should be shaken by this book,” said Dodaro. “On the contrary, it should be fortified by this account. This is a believable account of the birth of Christ,” he said.
And in St Peter’s Square, workmen have started building the Vatican’s larger than life nativity scene, which is expected to have animals and singing angels.
(Reporting By Philip Pullella)