VATICAN CITY, DEC. 22, 2004 ( John Paul II hopes that this Christmas be a favorable time to live the "value and meaning of the great event of Jesus' birth."

The Pope dedicated his last general audience before the holiday to the "great mystery of God, made man in the womb of the Virgin Mary."

"He is born in Bethlehem to share our fragile human condition!" the Holy Father told the audience in Paul VI Hall today. "He comes among us and brings salvation to the whole world. His mission will be to reunite all human beings and peoples in the one family of the children of God.

"We can say that in the mystery of Christmas, we contemplate the 'leap forward' in the history of salvation. To the human being, who with sin has distanced himself from the creator, is offered in Christ the gift of a new and fuller communion with him. Hope springs up in our hearts, and the gates of heaven are opened for us."

The Pope added: "May the celebration of Christmas be a propitious occasion to truly live the value and meaning of the great event of Jesus' birth."

A festive air, complete with Christmas carols, marked the papal audience.

Three artists from the Moira Orfeo circus performed for the Pope. At the end he personally greeted the acrobats, particularly the youngest, a 10-year-old boy.

John Paul II will preside over the key holiday celebrations, including Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.