The Pope, what a surprise, insists in his new book that the Virgin Birth is a core Christian belief: ‘This is,’ he says, ‘a scandal for the modern spirit’

Pope Benedict XVI holds a copy of his book The Infancy Narratives (Photo: CNS)

The Holy Father’s third and final meditation on the life of Christ, The Infancy Narratives (which he describes as being “not a third volume, but a kind of small ‘antechamber’ to the two earlier volumes”) has now been published, in time for Christmas. I have only just begun reading it (I have it so quickly thanks to my Kindle, how did I ever live without it?) but I can record from the secular press that Pope Benedict is being widely reported, with apparent amazement, as saying that the Virgin Birth is actually true. Jesus’s Virgin Birth and his Resurrection from the dead, writes Pope Benedict, are the two moments in the Gospels when “God intervenes directly into the material world”. In other words, both are events which actually happened: they are history and not myth. “This is a scandal for the modern spirit,” the Holy Father notes, since in today’s world God is “allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter”. But for just this reason, he adds, Mary’s virginity is a “test” and a “fundamental element” of the Christian faith.

Absolutely. Ever since I was converted to the Christian religion in my early 30s after a lifetime of atheism, I have firmly believed (by which I mean known) that the infancy narratives were true, and that the notion that these were stories which were a kind of meditation on faith, so they could not be literally true as well, was meaningless. There is no necessary dichotomy between meditation and historicity: that very simple fact is conveyed most beautifully by the sublime sentence in Luke’s gospel which also reveals, surely, the evangelist’s source as being Our Lady herself: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

Similarly, it has always seemed to me one of the most transparently bogus propositions of liberal Protestant biblical criticism that since the fourth gospel is a great meditation on the meaning of the faith, it is therefore much less historically to be relied upon than the synoptic gospels. It’s quite clear that John is presenting his gospel as a historical record whose truth is to be believed in, and not as a meditation. That it is that, too, is the product of John’s sublime spiritual and literary genius: but he ends the gospel (ch 21) by declaring that he is “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” and … ”that his testimony is true”. He also records (20: 30-31) that “Jesus did many … miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” We are to believe, because it is true that these things happened.

Similarly with the Lucan infancy narratives. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke ii. 19). As vicar of St Mary’s, Newman preached one of his greatest sermons on this text (to which of course he returns in The Development of Christian Doctrine), in which he insists that simply knowing the historic narrative of God’s interventions in human history is not enough: they are to be pondered, ingested, truly understood:

“… Mary’s faith did not end in a mere acquiescence in Divine providences and revelations: as the text informs us, she ‘pondered’ them. When the shepherds came, and told of the vision of Angels which they had seen at the time of the Nativity, and how one of them announced that the Infant in her arms was ‘the Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’, while others did but wonder, ‘Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’. Again, when her Son and Saviour had come to the age of twelve years, and had left her for awhile for His Father’s service, and had been found, to her surprise, in the Temple, amid the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions, and had, on her addressing Him, vouchsafed to justify His conduct, we are told, “His mother kept all these sayings in her heart…

“Thus St Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing.”

This passage from Newman’s sermon continues with the following, which I cannot help applying to the present Holy Father, a more recent great ponderer in his heart on the events surrounding our Lord’s birth. For, Newman thinks that it is not enough simply to immerse ourselves in the sublimity of this wonderful story; and neither does Joseph Ratzinger, a man of transparent simplicity of faith but also of great subtlety of mind and at the same time heroic pugnacity of spirit faced by the dangers of aggressive secularity, not only outside the Church but within it, too. The faith is to be both pondered and fought for: “And thus”, says Newman, Mary “symbolises to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel; to draw the line between truth and heresy; to anticipate or remedy the various aberrations of wrong reason; to combat pride and recklessness with their own arms; and thus to triumph over the sophist and the innovator.”

Thus, too, Newman himself; of whom, surely Pope Benedict (who knows his writings well and has acknowledged their influence) more and more shows himself to be one of his greatest successors as a defender of the faith, one who notably triumphs over the sophist and the innovator as well as being a true model of simple faith.