Jan. 5 Audience: On the Today of the Nativity

«The Liturgical Celebration of Christmas … Is Not Only a Memory But Also a Presence»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 7, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave last Wednesday during the general audience in Paul VI Hall, in which he reflected on the liturgical season of Christmas.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters!

I am happy to welcome you to this first general audience of the new year and with all my heart I offer you and your families fervent good wishes. May the Lord of time and history guide our steps on the way of goodness and grant each one an abundance of grace and prosperity.

Still surrounded by the light of holy Christmas that invites us to joy over the coming of the Savior, we are today on the eve of the Epiphany, in which we celebrate the manifestation of the Lord to all peoples. The feast of Christmas still enthralls people today as it always has, more than the Church’s other great feasts; it captivates people because everyone in some way intuits that Jesus’ birth has something to do with the most profound aspirations and hopes of man. Consumerism can distract from this interior longing, but if in the heart there is a desire to welcome that Child who brings the novelty of God, who came to give us life in fullness, then even the lights of the Christmas decorations can become a reflection of the Light that was lit with the Incarnation of God.

In the liturgical celebrations of these holy days we lived in a mysterious but real way the entrance of the Son of God into the world and we were illumined once again by the light of his brilliance. Each celebration is an actual presence of the mystery of Christ and in it is prolonged the history of salvation. Regarding Christmas, Pope St. Leo the Great affirmed: «Even if the succession of corporal actions is now passed, as was ordained beforehand in the eternal plan … we still continually adore the same birth-giving of the Virgin that produces our salvation» (Sermon on the Lord’s Birth 29, 2), and he specifies: «Because that day is not passed in such a way that the power of the work that was revealed then is also passed» (Sermon on the Epiphany 36, 1). To celebrate the events of the Incarnation of the Son of God is not simply to remember events of the past, but to render present these salvation-bearing mysteries.

In the liturgy, in the celebration of the sacraments, those mysteries are rendered present and become efficacious for us today. Again St. Leo the Great affirms: «All that the Son of God did and taught in order to bring reconciliation to the world, we know not only in the telling of things that happened in the past, but rather, we are under the effect of the dynamism of these present actions» (Sermon 52, 1).

In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council underlines how the work of salvation carried out by Christ continues in the Church through the celebration of the holy mysteries, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit. Already in the Old Testament, in the journey toward the fullness of faith, we have testimonies of how the presence and the action of God was mediated through signs, for example, that of fire (cf. Exodus 3:2ff; 19:18). But beginning with the Incarnation, something overwhelming happens: The mode of salvific contact with God is radically transformed and flesh becomes the instrument of salvation: «Verbum caro factum est,» the Word became flesh, writes the Evangelist John, and a Christian writer of the third century, Tertullian, affirms: «Caro salutis est cardo,» the flesh is the foundation of salvation (De carnis resurrectione, 8,3: PL 2,806).

Christmas is already the first fruit of the «sacramentum-mysterium paschale,» that is to say, it is the beginning of the central mystery of salvation that culminates in the passion, death and resurrection, because Jesus begins to offer himself out of love from the first instance of his human existence in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The night of Christmas is therefore profoundly linked to the great nocturnal vigil of Easter, when redemption is accomplished in the glorious sacrifice of the Lord dead and risen.

The crib itself, as an image of the Incarnation of the Word, in light of the evangelical account, already alludes to Easter. It is interesting to see how in some icons of the nativity in the Eastern tradition, the Child Jesus is represented wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a sepulcher-shaped manger — an allusion to the moment in which he will be taken down from the cross, wrapped in a cloth and placed in a sepulcher hewn from rock (cf. Luke 2:7; 23, 53). Incarnation and Easter are not next to one another, but are the two inseparable key points of the one faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnated and redeemer. The cross and Resurrection presuppose the Incarnation. Only because truly the Son, and in him, God himself, «descended» and «was made flesh,» are the death and resurrection of Jesus events that are contemporary for us and concern us, snatching us from death and opening us to a future in which this «flesh» — earthly and transitory existence — will enter into the eternity of God. In this unitary perspective of the mystery of Christ, the visit to the crib orients one to the visit to the Eucharist, where we find present in a real way the crucified and risen Christ, the living Christ.

The liturgical celebration of Christmas, then, is not only a remembrance but is above all a mystery; it is not only a memory but also a presence. To appreciate the meaning of these two indissoluble aspects, one must live intensely the whole Christmas season as the Church presents it. If we consider it in a broad sense, it extends for 40 days, from Dec. 25 to Feb. 2, from the celebration of Christmas Eve to Mary’s Maternity, to the Epiphany, to the Baptism of Jesus, to the wedding of Cana, to the Presentation in the Temple, precisely in analogy with Eastertide, which forms a unity of 50 days, until Pentecost. The manifestation of God in the flesh is the event that revealed Truth in history. In fact, the date Dec. 25, linked with the idea of the appearance of the sun — God who appears as a light that doesn’t set on the horizon of history — reminds us that this is not just an idea: that God is the fullness of light, but rather a reality for us men that is already fulfilled and always present. Today, as then, God reveals himself in the flesh, namely, in the «living body» of the Church journeying in time, and, in the sacraments, he gives us salvation today.

The symbols of the Christmas celebration, recalled in the readings and the prayers, give the liturgy of this season a profound sense of God’s «epiphany» in his incarnate Christ-Word, that is, the «manifestation» that also has an eschatological meaning, it orients, that is, to the end times. Already in Advent the two comings — the historical one and the one at the end of time — were directly linked; but it is in particular in the Epiphany and in the baptism of Jesus that the Messianic manifestation is celebrated in the perspective of the eschatological expectation: the Messianic consecration of Jesus, incarnate Word, through the effusion of the Holy Spirit in visible form, brings to fulfillment the time of the promises and inaugurates the end times.

It is important to rescue this Christmas time from an overly moralistic and sentimental mask. The celebration of Christmas does not propose to us only examples to imitate, such as the humility and poverty of the Lord, and his benevolence and love for men; but it is rather an invitation to allow oneself to be totally transformed by him who entered into our flesh. St. Leo the Great exclaims: «The Son of God … joined himself to us and joined us to himself in such a way that the abasement of God to the human condition became a raising of man to the heights of God» (Sermon on the Lord’s Birth 27,2). God’s manifestation has its purpose in our participation in divine life, in the realization in us of the mystery of his Incarnation. This mystery is the fulfillment of man’
s vocation. Again St. Leo the Great explains the Christmas mystery’s concrete and always present importance for Christian life: «The words of the Gospel and of the Prophets … inflame our spirit and teach us to understand the Lord’s nativity, this mystery of the Word made flesh, not so much as a memory of a past event, but as an event that unfolds before our eyes … it is as if it was proclaimed again in today’s solemnity: ‘I give you the announcement of a great joy, which will be for all the people: today, in the city of David, a Savior is born for you who is Christ the Lord'» (Sermon on the Lord’s Birth 29,1). And he adds: «Recognize, O Christian, your dignity, and, made participant of the divine nature, be careful not to fall again, with unworthy conduct, from such greatness into primitive baseness» (Sermon 1 on the Lord’s Birth, 3).

Dear friends, let us live this Christmastide with intensity: After having adored the Son of God made man and placed in the manger, we are called to pass to the altar of the Sacrifice, where Christ, the living Bread come down from heaven, offers himself to us as true nourishment for eternal life. And what we have seen with our eyes, at the table of the Word and of the Bread of Life, what we contemplated, what our hands have touched, that is the Word made flesh, let us proclaim him with joy to the world and witness to him generously with all our life. I renew to all from my heart, and to your dear ones, my heartfelt best wishes for the New Year and I wish you a happy celebration of Epiphany.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In this first Audience of the New Year, on the eve of the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, I offer my prayerful best wishes to you and your families. The Church’s celebration of these days of Christmas is not only a remembrance of things past, but a joyful experience of Christ’s enduring presence in our lives and in our world. In Jesus, the Word Incarnate, our salvation is accomplished in the flesh. Jesus’ humbling of himself, beginning with his conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary, will find its fullest expression in the paschal mystery of his death and resurrection. Our appreciation of the deep bond uniting the Incarnation and the Redemption naturally draws us from the contemplation of the Child Jesus in the Crib to the adoration of the real presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The liturgical celebrations of this holy season, from Christmas through the Epiphany to the Baptism of the Lord, challenge us to be completely transformed by the Son of God who became man so that we might attain our ultimate human fulfilment by sharing in his glorious divine life.

I am pleased to greet the students and professors from the University of Helsinki. My warm greetings also go to the seminarians of the Pontifical College Josephinum. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace today and throughout the coming year!

©Copyright 2011 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian, he greeted the youth, sick and newlyweds present:]

Finally I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Tomorrow, the solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany, we will recall the journey of the Magi to Christ, guided by the light of the star. May their example, dear young people, nourish in you the desire to encounter Jesus and to transmit to all the joy of his Gospel; may it lead you, dear sick, to offer to the Child of Bethlehem, your pains and sufferings rendered precious by the faith; may it constitute for you, dear newlyweds, a constant stimulus to make your families «domestic churches,» welcoming the mysterious signs of God and of the gift of life.

[Translation by ZENIT]
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