Books for your Christmas list, part 3

Reviewed By Father Jim McDermott, SJ
Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Most biblical commentaries traffic in scriptural analysis dense to the point of being unreadable for the average Catholic, and also often irrelevant. It’s great to know the proper translation of this or that Greek word or the inside joke being made in the early chapters of Genesis, but when it comes right down to it, so what? Why should we care?

The “Paulist Biblical Commentary,” on the other hand, aspires to offer useful pastoral observations and insights. The Psalms, suggests Jesuit John Endres and Verbum Dei Missionary Fraternity Sister Julia D. E. Prinz, “can be considered as a school of different images of God.”

Revelations, writes John J. Clabeaux, is like a “kaleidoscope”: “the patterns are striking, but there is no telling how they relate to each other or what will happen next.” But there is a way to cut through its almost totally inscrutable symbology, he suggests: pay attention to God’s nearness. “The Book of Revelation is principally about the experience of the presence of God.”

Some chapters maintain the daunting density of other commentaries, but many make a real effort, both in their writing and bite-sized, easy-to-follow sections, to provide a resource that doesn’t require a doctorate or hours of silent study. The fact that the authors include many who have long written for non-professional audiences, like Jesuits M. Dennis Hamm and Brendan Byrne, and Sister of St. Agnes Dianne Bergant is a great asset.

My favorite lesson so far: “No room at the inn” is a mistranslation. Given that Joseph was a member of the House of David returning to what was known as a City of David, writes Hamm in his chapter on Luke, “it is unthinkable that the people of this village, no doubt including relatives, would not make room for this member of the family of David.”

The point, he argues, was not that there was no room for Mary and Joseph, but that it would not have been right to force them to share a guest room in the crowded city with others. So instead they were brought to “the main family room, which also happens to include the place for the animals.”

“On this understanding of Luke’s text,” Hamm writes, “the scenario is not one of rejection but one of hasty hospitality and the normal birth of a baby. It is not so much a case of poverty but of common human solidarity.” A wonderful insight to bring with us into the Christmas season and into our world today.