On Christmas

The “Love Story Between God and Man Passes by Way of the Manger of Bethlehem”

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 21, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in Paul VI Hall. The Pope reflected on the approaching feast of Christmas.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

I am pleased to receive you in this general audience, just days before the celebration of the Lord’s birth. During these days, the greeting on everyone’s lips is “Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!” Let us ensure that, even in today’s society, the exchange of greetings not lose its deep religious significance, and that the exterior aspects that play upon our heartstrings not absorb the feast. Certainly, external signs are beautiful and important, so long as they do not distract us, but rather help us to experience Christmas in its truest sense — the sacred and Christian sense — and cause our joy to be not superficial, but deep.

With the Christmas liturgy, the Church introduces us to the great Mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas, in fact, is not a mere anniversary of Jesus’ birth — it is also this, but it is more — it is the celebration of a mystery that has marked and continues to mark mankind’s history — God Himself came to dwell among us (cf. John 1:14), He made Himself one of us; a mystery that concerns our faith and our very lives; a mystery that we experience concretely in the liturgical celebrations, especially in the Holy Mass.

Someone might ask himself: How can I live out now an event that took place so long ago? How can I participate fruitfully in the birth of the Son of God, which took place over 2,000 years ago? During the Holy Mass on Christmas Night, we will repeat as a refrain to the responsorial psalm, these words: “Today a Savior is born for us.” This adverb of time “Today,” which is used repeatedly throughout the Christmas celebrations, refers to the event of Jesus’ birth and to the salvation that the incarnation of the Son of God comes to bring.

In the liturgy, this event reaches beyond the limits of space and time and becomes actual, present; its effect continues, even amidst the passing of days, years and centuries. In indicating that Jesus is born “today,” the liturgy does not use a meaningless phrase, but underscores that this birth affects and permeates the whole of history — even today, it remains a reality to which we may attain, precisely in the liturgy. For believers, the celebration of Christmas renews our certainty that God is really present with us, still “flesh” and not only far away: though also with the Father, He is close to us. In that Child born in Bethlehem, God drew near to man: we can encounter Him now — in a “today” whose sun knows no setting.

I would like to stress this point, because modern man — a man of “the sensible,” of the empirically verifiable — finds it increasingly more difficult to open his horizons and enter the world of God. The Redemption of mankind certainly took place at a precise and identifiable moment in history: in the event of Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus is the Son of God — He is God Himself, who not only spoke to man, showed him wondrous signs and guided him throughout the history of salvation — but became man and remains man. The Eternal entered into the limits of time and space, in order to make possible an encounter with Him “today.”

The liturgical texts of Christmas help us to understand that the events of salvation wrought by Christ are always actual — the interest of every man and of all mankind. When, within liturgical celebrations, we hear or proclaim this “Today a Savior is born for us,” we are not employing an empty, conventional expression; rather, we mean that God offers us “today”, now, to me, to each one of us, the possibility of acknowledging and receiving Him like the shepherds in Bethlehem, so that He might be born in our lives and renew them, illumine them, transform them by His grace, by His Presence.

Christmas, then, while commemorating Jesus’ birth in the flesh of the Virgin Mary — and numerous liturgical texts put before our eyes this or that event — is an efficacious event for us. Pope St. Leo the Great, in presenting the profound meaning of Christmas, issued an invitation to the faithful with these words: “Let us be glad in the Lord, dearly-beloved, and rejoice with purest joy that there has dawned for us the day of ever-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss. For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us the commemoration of our salvation, which promised from the beginning and accomplished in the fullness of time, will endure for ever” (Sermon 22, In Nativitate Domini, 2,1; PL 54,193).

And again, in another Christmas homily St. Leo the Great affirms: “Today the Maker of the world was born of a Virgin’s womb, and He, who made all natures, became the Son of her, whom He created. Today the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and That which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well. Today the shepherds learned from angels’ voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul (Sermon 26, In Nativitate Domini, 6,1; PL 54,213).

There is a second aspect that I would like to touch upon briefly. The event of Bethlehem should be considered in the light of the Paschal Mystery: The one and the other are part of the one redemptive work of Christ. Jesus’ incarnation and birth invite us to direct our gaze to His death and resurrection: Christmas and Easter are both feasts of the Redemption. Easter celebrates it as the victory over sin and death: It signals the final moment, when the glory of the Man-God shines forth as the light of day; Christmas celebrates it as God’s entrance into history, His becoming man in order to restore man to God: It marks, so to speak, the initial moment when we begin to see the first light of dawn.

But just as dawn precedes and already heralds the day’s light, so Christmas already announces the cross and the glory of the resurrection. Even the two times of year when we mark the two great feasts — at least in some parts of the world — can help us to understand this aspect. In fact, while Easter falls at the beginning of spring, when the sun breaks through the thick, chilly mists and renews the face of the earth, Christmas falls right at the beginning of winter, when the sun’s light and warmth seek in vain to awaken nature enwrapped by the cold. Under this blanket, however, life throbs and the victory of the sun and warmth begins again.

The Fathers of the Church always interpreted Christ’s birth in the light of the whole work of Redemption, which finds its summit in the Paschal Mystery. The incarnation of God’s Son appears not only as the commencement and condition for salvation, but as the very presence of the mystery of our salvation: God becomes man; He is born a babe like us; He takes on our flesh to conquer death and sin.

Two important texts of St. Basil illustrate this well. St. Basil tells the faithful: “God assumes flesh to destroy death within it hidden. Just as antidotes to poison, when ingested, eliminate the poison’s effects, and as the shadows within a house clear with the light of the sun; so death, which had dominated human nature, was destroyed by the presence of God. And as ice remains solid in water as long as night endures and shadows reign, but melts at once by the sun’s heat, so death — which had reigned until the coming of Christ — as soon as the grace of God our Savior appeared, and the Sun of Justice arose, ‘was swallowed up in victory’ (1 Corinthians 15:54), for it cannot coexist with Life” (Homily on the Birth of Christ, 2: PG 31,1461).

And again, in another text St. Basil issues this invitation: “Let us celebrate the world’s salvation and mankind’s birth. Today Adam’s guilt has been remitted. Now we need no longer say: ‘you are dust and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3:19), but rather: united to Him who descended from heaven, you shall be
admitted into heaven (Homily on the Birth of Christ, 6: PG 31,1473).

At Christmas we encounter the tenderness and love of God, who stoops down to our limitations, to our weakness, to our sins — and He lowers Himself to us. St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ “though He was in the form of God … emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6-7). Let us look upon the cave of Bethlehem: God lowers Himself to the point of being laid in a manger — which is already a prelude of His self-abasement in the hour of His Passion. The climax of the love story between God and man passes by way of the manger of Bethlehem and the sepulcher of Jerusalem.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us joyously live the feast of Christmas, which now draws near. Let us live this wondrous event: The Son of God again is born “today”; God is truly close to each one of us, and He wants to meet us — He wants to bring us to Himself. He is the true light, which dispels and dissolves the darkness enveloping our lives and mankind. Let us live the Lord’s birth by contemplating the path of God’s immense love, which raised us to Himself through the mystery of the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of His Son, for — as St. Augustine affirms — “In [Christ] the divinity of the Only Begotten was made a partaker of our mortality, so that we might be made partakers of His immortality” (Letter 187,6,20: PL 33: 839-840). Above all, let us contemplate and live this Mystery in the celebration of the Eucharist, the heart of Christmas; there, Jesus makes Himself really present — as the true Bead come down from heaven, as the true Lamb sacrificed for our salvation.

To you and to your families I wish a truly Christian celebration of Christmas, such that even your exchange of greetings on that day will be expressions of the joy of knowing that God is near and wants to accompany us along life’s journey. Thank you.

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

As Christmas approaches, I offer prayerful good wishes to you and your families for a spiritually fruitful celebration of the Lord’s birth. At Midnight Mass, we sing: “Today a Saviour is born for us”. This “Today” evokes an eternal present, for the mystery of Christ’s coming transcends time and permeates all history. “Today” – every day – we are invited to discover the presence of God’s saving love in our midst. In the birth of Jesus, God comes to us and asks us to receive him, so that he can be born in our lives and transform them, and our world, by the power of his love. The Christmas liturgy also invites us to contemplate Christ’s birth against the backdrop of his paschal mystery. Christmas points beyond itself, to the redemption won for us on the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection. May this Christmas fill you with joy in the knowledge that God has drawn near to us and is with us at every moment of our lives.

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I greet all the English-speaking visitors present, including the pilgrimage groups from Singapore and the United States. My special greetings and good wishes go to the Tenth World Congress of the International Association of Maternal and Neonatal Health. My greeting also goes to the primary school children from Korea. I welcome the alumni of the Pontifical North American College who are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary of ordination, and the students of Holy Spirit Seminary in Brisbane, Australia. Upon all of you and your families I invoke God’s abundant blessings. Merry Christmas!

© Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

Finally, in Italian he said:

I address a special greeting to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. Dear young people, especially you students of the school of Braucci of Caivano, may you approach the mystery of Bethlehem with the same sentiments of faith as the Virgin Mary; may it be given to you, dear sick, to draw from the crib of Bethlehem that joy and that intimate peace that Jesus came to bring to the world; and may you, dear newlyweds, desire to contemplate assiduously the example of the holy Family of Nazareth, in order that the virtues there practiced might be impressed upon the path of family life you have just begun.

I return your good wishes, wishing everyone a holy Christmas filled with every blessing.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
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