VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI completed his trilogy on the life of Jesus Christ with a new book on Jesus' birth, insisting on its significance for Christians today and lamenting that God is still considered by many an obstacle to their freedom.
"Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives," hits bookstores in 50 countries on Wednesday, the third and final installment of a project the 85-year-old Benedict conceived a decade ago and began writing soon after he became pope in 2005.
The first two books, which topped the bestseller lists in Italy, dealt with Jesus' public ministry and his death, leaving just Jesus' birth to complete the series. More than 1 million copies are planned for the initial print run, just in time for Christmas.
In the book, which the Vatican presented Tuesday, Benedict blends history, theology, linguistics and even astronomy to interpret the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which describe the months just before and after Jesus' birth.
Benedict's findings: Jesus was indeed conceived immaculately to Mary and was born poor, in a stable in Bethlehem. Yet he was revered by even his first visitors who brought him gifts befitting a king — the first visitors of what would become billions of followers.
Benedict laments that despite all the evidence pointing to Jesus as the savior of mankind, he remains a contradiction today — a contradiction that in the end is directed at God.
"God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom, that must be set aside if man is ever to be completely himself," Benedict writes. But he insists: "God, with his truth, stands in opposition to man's manifold lies, his self-seeking and his pride. God is love."
It's a theme Benedict has insisted on throughout his pontificate: that in today's increasingly secular world, more and more people think they can live without God. Benedict has focused much of his teaching on trying to reverse that trend, trying to revive Christianity in parts of the world where it no longer takes center stage or where it has been damaged by scandal.
In his previous Jesus books, Benedict made some sweeping proclamations, for example exonerating the Jews as a people for Christ's death in "Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection," which was published in 2011.
There are no such headline-grabbing declarations in the slim, 127-page volume, which Benedict wrote this summer during his vacation at the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo, while the Vatican was convulsed with the scandal over his leaked documents.
But he makes a few key points, many of them concerning the importance of Mary in the whole of Christianity, particularly her obedience in accepting to bear Jesus as a virgin.
Benedict insists on the uniqueness of Mary's "virgin birth" of Jesus, dismissing similar Egyptian and pagan Greco-Roman myths as paltry in comparison to the "profound" reality of Mary willingly accepting the word of an angel that she would bear the son of God.
"Perhaps one could say that humanity's silent and confused dreams of a new beginning came true in this event — in a reality such that only God could create," Benedict wrote.
Benedict notes the poverty into which Jesus was born, forced to come into the world in a stable because there was no room for his parents at an inn. Benedict says that alone should cause Christians to reflect, as it points to a "reversal of values" found in Jesus' figure.
"From the moment of his birth, he belongs outside the realm of what is important and powerful in worldly terms," he wrote.
Yet Jesus' first visitors were three wise men who brought him gifts for a divine king, as if they knew ahead of time the importance of this birth. Aside from the significance of their gifts, Benedict writes that the three represent the first followers who were drawn to Christ.
"Not only do they represent the people who have found the way to Christ: they represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit, the dynamism of religions and human reason toward him."
Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield