Candles at a graveyeard on a Christmas Eve -- Wikimedia Commons

From Nazareth to Bethlehem: the 2017th Christmas

With the wish to understand that the Crib is the place where man can meet true and lasting life.

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1) Christmas Eve.
This year, the fourth Sunday of Advent falls on December 24th. After the testimony of John the Baptist (Third Sunday of Advent), the liturgy of the Word of this fourth Sunday offers us the testimony of Mary, Virgin Mother of God, who has devoutly kept in her heart the great things that the Lord had done to her.
Let us make our eyes full of the hope that nourished the patient waiting of John the Baptist and Mary’s maternal waiting so to sing with her the hymn of praise for God who «helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, as he had promised to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his descendants forever «(Lk 1: 45-55).
On the eve of Christmas, the liturgy leads us to Nazareth where the first «Hail Mary» was said and the Word became flesh, and offers us the Gospel of the Annunciation. Let us contemplate this evangelical fact – addressed to us by St. Luke, who probably heard it told by Mary herself- and  let’s  make ours the «yes», the «fiat» (in Latin), the «Amen» (in Hebrew) of this young woman. In this way, we could also make true the words of the Angel Gabriel: «Do not be afraid … you will conceive … you will give birth to the Son of God and you will name him Jesus».
The event of the Annunciation clearly tells us that Mary is the immediate, temporal as well as biological and affective, theological and biblical channel through which welcome Jesus this Christmas and forever. In fact, «does it profit us that Christ was once born of Mary in Bethlehem if he is not born also by faith in our soul?» (Origen). Therefore, «moved by the goodness of God who in Christ manifests his love for man» (Pope Francis) we welcome the Savior.
A great amazement full of emotion takes possession of us if we contemplate the miracle of God, who takes on a human body by dwelling in a mother’s womb, and the miracle that «a womb of flesh was able to bring fire, and the flame lived in the delicate body without burning it «(Saint Ephraim, the Syrian) but burned our sins.
2) Christmas and the Nativity.
Now, from Nazareth, which means «garden» and where the flower of Christ was born, let’s go to Bethlehem, which means «house of bread» and will host the One who will become for us the Bread of life.
In Bethlehem was born the One who, in the sign of the broken bread, would have left the memorial of his Passover. The adoration of the Child Jesus in this Holy Night continues in the Eucharistic adoration. We adore the Lord, made flesh to save our flesh, made living Bread to give life to every human being. We recognize, as our only God, this fragile Child who lies helplessly in the manger. «At the fullness of time, you became man among men to unite the end to the beginning, that is, man to God» (cf. St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haer., IV, 20, 4). In the Son of the Virgin, «wrapped in swaddling clothes» and laid «in a manger» (Lk 2:12), we recognize and adore «the Bread descended from heaven» (Jn 6, 41.51), the Redeemer came to earth to give life to the world.
Today, we are not only given to listen but also to see the Word of God, as long as we go «to Bethlehem and look at this Word, that the Lord has done and showed us”. (Blessed Guerric d’Igny)
Let us therefore go to the grotto of Bethlehem and contemplate this unthinkable miracle, which for many is still unbelievable: «God, who measures the sky with the width of his hand, lies in a manger as large as a hand’s width; He, who contains the sea in the hollow of his hand, experienced his birth in a cave. The sky is full of his glory and the manger is full of his splendor (Saint Ephraim the Syrian, Hymn for the Birth of Christ, 1).
If we read carefully the Gospel of the Nativity, as St. Luke proposes it, we can recreate the scene of the nativity in the mind and in the heart. Imagine a cave also used as a stable, a poor occasional housing, chosen by the two pilgrims, Mary and Joseph, to host the birth of the One who is the center of the world and humanity: a mature event that fulfills the times. Let us allow our eyes to be drawn by the night, the cold, poverty, and loneliness and then, suddenly, by the opening of the sky and the extraordinary announcement of the angels, and by the arrival of the shepherds. With our imagination, we can reconstruct the details and transform the scene into a pastoral familiar landscape for an enchanting story. We all become children, and we enjoy an enchanted moment that makes us dream. This is beautiful but it is simplistic because Christ is born in a cave. When the shepherds arrived there, what did they see?
A child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger as the Angels had announced them. It is the wonder of Christmas: to be proclaimed Lord, the Prince of Peace, Messiah and Savior is a child who has, as a throne, a manger and, as a royal palace, a cave. The total simplicity of the first nativity is amazing.  The most marvelous detail is the absence of any wonderful touch in the cave. The shepherds are wrapped up and frightened by the glory of God, but the sign they receive from the Angels is simple: «You will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger». Actually, when they come to Bethlehem they see nothing but «a child lying in the manger». Let’s ask to see the miracle of Christmas in the «banality» of everyday life and seriously predict what an anonymous wrote centuries ago: «Our body is the living Nativity in places where we are called to live and work; our legs, like those of the animals that warmed Jesus on the night of His Christmas; our womb, like that of Mary who welcomed and raised Jesus; our arms like those of Joseph who cradled, lifted, embraced Jesus and worked for Him;  our voice, like that of the angels to praise the Word made flesh; our eyes, like the ones of all those who saw him in the manger at night; our ears, like those of the shepherds who listened -astounded- to the angelic song coming from the sky; our intelligence, like that of the Three Wise Men who followed the star to the «house» of Jesus, the cave; our heart as the manger that welcomed the Eternal who became small and poor like one of us «.
So let’s go to the manger to become more and more a living Nativity that reveals Man and God. The man who we are not yet but who we are called to be, and the God who cannot manifest himself but in a humble but transparent humanity that lets go through itself this Love that is only Love.
If we go to the nativity, it is because Christmas is the center of the universal history. It is in relation to Christmas that all the centuries are counted.
If we go to the nativity, it is because in the birth of Christ there is our birth, our dignity, our greatness and our freedom.
If we go to the nativity, it is because there God reveals himself no longer as a master who dominates us and claims rights over us, but as a sweet Love, who wants to hide in us and does not stop waiting for us because «the only thing” that He can always do is to love us.
The only logical answer to this Love is to love Him. The Christians are those who believed and believe in this Love born among us and for us. The Christians are called by Love to love. This is the vocation that Christmas offers and every year renews.
This vocation to Love is lived in a special way by the consecrated Virgins. If the Christian life is a journey and a progressive assimilation to the life of the Lord Jesus, so it is, in a special way, the life of these women who joyfully consecrated themselves to Christ with loving trust and total abandonment. The consecrated virgins testify to us that Christ is a gift to which we respond by giving ourselves and making of our heart the manger from where He opens his arms to the world. Christmas is not an emotion, but a vocation to always be chastely with him. The Son of God who incarnates himself, becomes one of us and calls us to believe with our heart, to proclaim with our lips (see Rom 10: 9-10) and to confirm with the works that God’s covenant is in our flesh consecrated by the virginal offering. In this way, men, seeing our good works, give glory to our Father who is in heaven (see Mt 5:16) in Jesus Christ our Lord (see Liturgy). Being consecrated virgins means being a sign of God’s fidelity and a place where the donated life of Christ generates life here on earth and for eternity.
The Virgins consecrated in the world, and we with them, are called to be the cradle of the true Adam where the whole world is born in divine communion. «I therefore expect that the ‘spirituality of communion’, indicated by St. John Paul II, becomes reality and that you are at the forefront in grasping the ‘great challenge facing us’ in this new millennium: making the Church the home and school of communion «(Pope Francis, Letter on the occasion of the Year of Consecrated Life, November 2014).

Servicemembers at Victory Base Complex , Iraq, attend the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at Al Faw Palace, Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 24, 2008.ÊU.S. Army photo by Spc. Eric J. Glassey

Patristic reading
Saint Leo, the Great (390 – 461)
Sermo 32
 All Share in the Joy of Christmas.
Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth1 .” Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result2 , she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honor that she is soon to be the Mother of God3. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.
II. The Mystery of the Incarnation is a Fitting Theme for Joy Both to Angels and to Men.
Therefore the Word of God, Himself God,the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made4 ,” with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate.5 Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable naturewas united with possible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, SO that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the others.
Rightly, therefore, did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honor. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will7 .” For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love, how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?
III. Christians Then Must Live Worthily of Christ Their Head.
Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit8 , Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ9 ,” that we might be inHim a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge thy dignity and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member. Recollect that thou wert rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism thou weft made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from thee by base acts, and subject thyself once more to the devil’s thraldom: because thy purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge thee in truth Who ransomed thee in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
1  Jb 19,4,
Effectus: the older editions read affatus (sc. the utterances of the angel).
Dei genetrix (qeotovko»): in opposing Eutyches, Leo is careful not to fall into Nestorianism. Bright’s note 3 should be read on this passage and esp. his quotation from Bp. Pearson (note 2 on art. 3) absit ut quisquam S. Mariam Divinoe gratioe privilegiis et speciali gloria fraudare conetur.
4  Jn 1,1-3.
5 «Without-other» repeated in almost the same words in Letter XXVIII. chap. 3.
6 «Without-other» repeated in almost the same words in Letter XXVIII. chap. 3.
7  Lc 2,14.
8 Bingham observes (b. 14,c. 2s 1), that Leo here uses, though in a catholic sense, that form of doxology which had become associated with Arianism. He could well afford to do as S. Athanasius had done, who ascribes glory to the Father “through the Son” at the conclusion of four treatises. Bright.
9  Ep 2,4-5.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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