On Christmas and Epiphany

«Christmas Is Joy Because We See — and at Last We Are Sure — That God Is Man’s Good»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 6, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave last Wednesday during the general audience held in Paul VI Audience Hall. The Pope reflected on the feasts of Christmas and the Epiphany.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

I am pleased to welcome you in this first General Audience of the new year, and with all my heart I offer you and your families my affectionate good wishes: May God, who in the birth of Christ His Son filled the whole world with joy, dispose your endeavors and days in His peace.

We are in the liturgical season of Christmas, which begins on the evening of December 24thwith the vigil and concludes with the celebration of the Lord’s Baptism. It is a brief span of days, but it is dense in celebrations and in mysteries and centers around the two great solemnities of the Lord: Christmas and Epiphany. The very name of these two feasts points to their respective features. Christmas celebrates the historical fact of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The Epiphany, which originated as a feast in the East, points to an event but above all to an aspect of the Mystery: God reveals Himself in Christ’s human nature; and this is the meaning of the Greek word epiphaino — to become visible.

Within this perspective, the Epiphany recalls a plurality of events whose object is the manifestation of the Lord: particularly the adoration of the Magi, who recognize in Jesus the awaited Messiah, but also the Baptism in the river Jordan with its theophany — the voice of God from heaven — and the miracle at the Wedding Feast of Cana, as the first “sign” wrought by Christ.

A most beautiful antiphon from the Liturgy of the Hours unites these three events around the theme of the marriage between Christ and the Church: “Today the Church hath been joined to her heavenly Spouse, for Christ hath washed away her sins in the Jordan; the Magi hasten with gifts to the royal nuptials, and the guests are gladdened with wine made from water,” (Antiphon from Lauds). We could almost say that, in the feast of Christmas, it is the hiddenness of God in the humility of the human condition, in the Child of Bethlehem, which is underscored. The Epiphany, instead, emphasizes His Self-manifestation, God’s appearing by means of this same humanity.

In this Catechesis, I would like briefly to recall a number of themes proper to the celebration of the Lord’s Birth, so that each one of us may drink from the inexhaustible fount of this mystery and bear life-giving fruit.

First of all, we ask ourselves: what is the first reaction to the extraordinary action of God, who becomes a babe, who becomes man? I think that the first reaction can be none other than joy. “Let us all rejoice in the Lord, for our Savior has been born in the world”: thus begins the Mass during the Night of Christmas; and we just heard the words of the angel to the shepherds: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy” (Luke 2:10). [Joy] is the theme that opens the Gospel, and it is the theme that concludes it, since the Risen Jesus will reproach the Apostles precisely for being sad (cf. Luke 24:17) — something incompatible with the fact that He remains Man forever. 

But let us go one step further: where does this joy come from? I would say that it is born of the heart’s wonder in seeing how close God is to us, how God thinks of us, how God acts in history; it is a joy, then, that comes from contemplating the face of that humble Child, because we know that it is the Face of God present to humanity forever — for us and with us. Christmas is joy because we see — and at last we are sure — that God is man’s good, his life and his truth; and He lowers Himself to man in order that He might raise man to Himself: God becomes close enough to see and touch. 

The Church contemplates this ineffable mystery, and the liturgical texts for this season are imbued with wonder and joy; it is this joy that all the songs of Christmas express. Christmas is the point where heaven and earth unite, and the various expressions we hear throughout these days emphasize the grandeur of what has occurred: what was far off — God seems so very far away — has drawn near; “He who was inaccessible willed to be accessible: abiding before all time He began to be in time: the Lord of the universe, He veiled His immeasurable majesty and took on the form of a servant,» exclaims St. Leo the Great (Sermon 2 on Christmas, 2.1). In that Child, needy in every way as infants are, what God is: eternity, power, holiness, life, joy, is joined to what we are: weakness, sin, suffering and death.

The theology and spirituality of Christmas use a particular expression to describe this event. They speak of an admirabile commercium; that is, a wondrous exchange between divinity and humanity. St. Athanasius of Alexandria affirms: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (De Incarnatione, 54,3:PG 25,192), but it is above all with St. Leo the Great and his celebrated Homilies on Christmas that this reality becomes the object of a profound meditation. The holy Pontiff affirms in fact: “If we have recourse to that unutterable condescension of the Divine Mercy, whereby the Creator of men deigned to become man, by it we shall be raised to the nature of Him whom we adore in ours” (Sermon 8 on Christmas: CCL 138,139).

The first act of this wondrous exchange is wrought in Christ’s own humanity. The Word assumed our humanity and, in exchange, human nature was raised to the divine dignity. The second act of the exchange consists in our real and intimate participation in the divine nature of the Word. St. Paul says: “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

Christmas, then, is the feast in which God becomes so close to man that He shares in the very act of being born, in order to reveal to man his most profound dignity: that of being a child of God. And thus, man’s dream beginning in [the Garden of] Paradise — we want to be like God — is realized in an unexpected way — not through the greatness of man, who cannot make himself like God, but by the humility of God who comes down, and in His humility enters into us and raises us to the true greatness of His being. The Second Vatican Council said in this regard: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light” (Gaudium et Spes, 22); otherwise, he remains an enigma: what is the meaning of this creature who is man? We can only see the light regarding our own being, be happy to be men and live with confidence and joy, by seeing that God is with us.

And where is this marvelous exchange made present in a real way, so that it might be at work in our lives and make them the lives of the true children of God? It becomes very concrete in the Eucharist. When we participate in the Holy Mass, we present to God what is ours: bread and wine, the fruit of the earth, so that He might receive and transform them, giving us His very self and making Himself our food in order that, by receiving His Body and His Blood, we might participate in His divine life.

Lastly, I would like to consider one other aspect of Christmas. When the angel of the Lord appears to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ Birth, the Evangelist Luke notes that “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (2:9); and the Prologue of John’s Gospel speaks of the Word made flesh as the true light coming into the world, the light that enlightens every man (cf. John 1:9). The Christmas liturgy is pervaded by light. The coming of Christ dispels the world’s darkness; it fills the holy Night with a heavenly radiance and sheds forth upon the faces of men the splendor of God the Father. Even today. Enveloped by t
he light of Christ, we are earnestly invited by the Christmas liturgy to allow our minds and hearts to be enlightened by the God who has shown us the splendor of His Face. The first Preface of Christmas proclaims: “In the mystery of the Word made flesh a new light of your glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind, so that, as we recognize in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in love of things invisible”. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God, after having spoken and intervened in history through messengers and signs, “appeared”; He went forth from His own inaccessible light to enlighten the world.

On the Solemnity of the Epiphany, January 6, which we will celebrate in just a few days, the Church sets forth for us a very meaningful passage from the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And the nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising” (60:1-3).

It is an invitation addressed to the Church — the Community of Christ — but also to each one of us, to become even more keenly aware of the mission and responsibility of witnessing and carrying the new light of the Gospel to the world. At the beginning of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution Lumen Gentium we find the following words: “Christ is the Light of nations. Because this is so, this Sacred Synod gathered together in the Holy Spirit eagerly desires, by proclaiming the Gospel to every creature, to bring the light of Christ to all men, a light brightly visible on the countenance of the Church” (n. 1).

The Gospel is the light that should not be hidden, that should be placed upon a lamp stand. The Church is not the light; rather, she receives the light of Christ; she welcomes it, that she may be enlightened by it and spread it abroad in all its splendor. And this must also happen in our personal lives. Once more, I quote St. Leo the Great who said on the Holy Night: “Recognize, O Christian, your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God” (Sermon 1 on Christmas, 3,2: CCL 138,88).

Dear brothers and sisters, Christmas is to stop and to contemplate that Child, [to contemplate] the mystery of God who becomes man in humility and poverty; but above all, it is to welcome again that Child, who is Christ the Lord, into our very selves, so that we might live by His very life, so that His sentiments, His thoughts, His actions might be our sentiments, our thoughts, our actions. To celebrate Christmas, then, is to manifest the joy, the newness and the light that this Birth brings to the whole of our existence, such that we too become heralds of the joy, the true newness and the light of God to others. Once more, I wish you all a Christmas season blessed by the presence of God!

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In this Christmas season, the Church celebrates the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God and his revelation as the Saviour of the world. From the witness of Scripture and the Church’s tradition, we see that our first reaction to the birth of Jesus should be one of joy, in the knowledge that God has assumed our humanity in order to make us sharers in his own divine life. The contemplation of this “wondrous exchange”, which we experience most powerfully in the Eucharist, invites us to recognize our lofty dignity as God’s adopted sons and daughters. The liturgy teaches us that Christmas is a feast of light, for Christ, the light of the world and the radiance of the Father’s glory, has brought us from darkness into his Kingdom of light and called us to bring the light of the Gospel to every creature. During this Christmas season, may we welcome the Newborn Saviour into our hearts and may our lives be transformed by his gifts of joy, newness and light.

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I am pleased to greet all the English-speaking visitors present, including the pilgrimage groups from Wales, Australia and the United States. I offer a special greeting to the priests and seminarians of the Pontifical College Josephinum. My welcome also goes to the La Salette Brothers taking part in a programme of spiritual renewal. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all of you and your families I invoke the Lord’s blessings of joy, peace and prosperity for the year which has just begun. Happy New Year!

© Copyright 2012 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[In Italian he said:]

Lastly, my thoughts go to young people, to the sick and to newlyweds. Dear young people, may you know how to look upon each day as God’s gift to be welcomed with gratitude and to be lived aright. Dear sick, may the new year bring you consolation in body and spirit. And may you, dear newlyweds, make every effort to imitate the Holy Family of Nazareth, by living out an authentic communion of love and of life.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]
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