The Many Meanings of Christmas

Expert on St. Francis Considers the Crib and Other Elements of Jesus’ Birthday

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By Antonio Gaspari

ROME, DEC. 20, 2011 ( Has the birth of the Child Jesus truly changed the history of humanity? Is it true that the powerful understood immediately the importance of that birth? Why do we measure time based on that event in Bethlehem?

To answer these and other questions, ZENIT spoke with Father Pietro Messa, president of the Higher School of Medieval and Franciscan Studies of Rome’s Antonianum Pontifical University.

ZENIT: What is the significance in history of the figure of the Child Jesus and, specifically, of the crib made by St. Francis?

Father Messa: We know that the early Christians, all of them being of the Jewish religion, observed the Sabbath, but on the following day, that is the present Sunday, they gathered to commemorate the Resurrection. Hence, the first celebration held par excellence was Easter. Subsequently, other events of Jesus’ life began to be celebrated, such as the birth fixed on Dec. 25, namely, on the same day in which previously the Sol invictus was celebrated, that is, the celebration of not being overcome by darkness, given that the winter solstice had passed, the days began to be longer and light imposed itself on the darkness of the night. From celebration they passed to representation and from there to pilgrimages to Bethlehem, the city of David, from whose descent Jesus was born.

The pilgrimages — at once an expression and incentive of the relationship with the places of Jesus’ life — were the engine for the narration and representation of Jesus’ humanity. It is in this context that Brother Francis of Assisi’s desire is situated, expressed to the people of Greccio, Italy, in 1223, in order to see «with human eyes,» how the Child Jesus was laid to rest in a crib between the donkey and the ox. And thus, on Christmas Eve, on the crib where the two animals of tradition were, the Eucharist was celebrated in such a way that one could see «with the eyes of the body» the bread and wine consecrated and believe, thanks to the Holy Spirit, in the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ.

ZENIT: In a secularized world such as today’s, the birth of the Child Jesus is trivialized and inserted in the context of a «myth,» in which children alone can believe. According to Christians, why has this birth changed the world?

Father Messa: It could be that the worst demystification of Christmas is not that of believing that it is a myth, but its reduction to a celebration of kindness, altruism, of helping the needy. It’s not that these things are unimportant, or that they are not present in the Gospel, but what is key is that Jesus came to us because he has opted for our poverty. He gives us his hand to the end, when his arm will be stretched on the cross. As the Poor Clare Sister Chiara Tarcisia, of the St. Clare pro-monastery of Assisi, said in the last months of her life: «What is important in life is to love, but especially to allow oneself to be loved!» And Christmas is a propitious time to allow oneself to be loved. This doesn’t lead us to passivity because Jesus loves us as we are, but he doesn’t leave us as we are. His presence transforms and initiates a new humanity.

ZENIT: Why do Christians speak of Jesus as Savior?

Father Messa: Jesus of Nazareth — a village from which, according to some, nothing good could come — walked on the roads of Palestine and, as happens with other persons, they also wondered who He was. The answers to such questions were the most diverse, but one who is not enclosed in his own schemes realizes that every answer is inadequate or, better said, not very exhaustive. And thus his reality as Messiah was increasingly recognized, that is, the anointed by the Most High and, hence, the Savior. However, the person of Jesus, even when arriving at some definitive certainties in the dogmas, opens constant questions and, as the saints show us, there is always something more to astonish us; that is, something to pause to contemplate with wonder.

ZENIT: The date, the star, the Wise Men, are these the elements to remember Christmas as an event that happened in history?

Father Messa: The account of Jesus has been given within the coordinates of history, that is, in a place and time: the place is that of Palestine and the time is — as we say in the Creed — «under Pontius Pilate.» However, this isn’t enough because many saw his humanity, listened to his word, admired also the miracles he wrought, but only some believed in his divinity. As St. Francis of Assisi says in his first Admonition, the disciples saw his humanity «with human eyes,» but they believed in his divinity. Hence, in Jesus there is a real history but also something that surpasses history; that is why it is important, as Benedict XVI reminds, that there should be a reason open to the mystery and a reasoned faith. Otherwise, we will fall into rationalism or fideism.

Jesus is a rational event, but which surpasses reason and when reason wishes to understand everything, that is, when it has the pretension of understanding it all, one falls into rationalism. Likewise, when faith excludes history and the discoveries of reason, it becomes a fideism that appears deviant, even violent.

ZENIT: In addition to Christians, are there others who have given importance to the birth that occurred more than 2,000 years ago?

Father Messa: Many people, including Muslims, for whom Jesus is a great prophet. Monsignor Padovese said that, present at the Christmas Mass were also Muslims and in one of his homilies he was able to take wise advantage of this presence. He said that everyone celebrated Jesus’ birth; for some, because he was a great prophet, for Christians because he was the manifestation of mercy, more than that, being the Son of God he was the presence of God among men.

ZENIT: Why does the greater part of humanity mark time from that birth?

Father Messa: In 313 the Edict of Milan was issued which in a certain sense marked the end of the persecutions; subsequently Christianity became the official religion. Thus, the computation of time began to be marked from his birth, recognizing in it the fulfillment of the ancient prophecies and promises, as well as the beginning of a new era. Paraphrasing Blessed John Paul II: He is «the center of the cosmos and of history.»

[Translation by ZENIT]
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