On the Feast of Christ's Birth

"God Has Come So Near to Each One of Us"

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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 23, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

With the Christmas novena that we are celebrating in these days, the Church invites us to live intensely and profoundly the preparation for the birth of the Savior, which is nearly upon us.

The desire that all of us have in our hearts is that, in the midst of the frenetic activity of our days, the coming feast of Christmas gives us serene and profound joy to enable us to touch the goodness of our God with our hands and to fill us with new energy.

To better understand the meaning of the birth of the Lord, I would like to briefly refer to the historical origin of this solemnity. In fact, the liturgical year of the Church did not initially develop beginning with the birth of Christ, but rather from faith in the Resurrection. Because of this the most ancient feast of Christianity is not Christmas, but Easter: The resurrection of Christ is at the base of Christian faith; it is at the base of the proclamation of the Gospel and gives birth to the Church. Therefore to be Christians means to live in the mode of Easter, connecting ourselves to the dynamic that comes from baptism, which brings death to sin to live with God (cf. Romans 6:4).

The first one to clearly affirm that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 was Hippolytus of Rome in his commentary on the Book of the prophet Daniel, written around 204. One exegete observes, moreover, that on this day was celebrated the Dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem, instituted by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C.. The concurrence of dates would come to mean that with Jesus, appearing as light of God in the night, advent of God to this earth, the consecration of the temple is truly fulfilled.

Within Christianity, the feast of Christmas took on a definite form in the fourth century, when it took the place of the Roman feast of "sol invictus," the invincible sun. Thus was shown that the birth of Christ is the victory of true light over the darkness of evil and sin. Yet, the unique and intense spiritual atmosphere that surrounds Christmas developed in the Middle Ages, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, who was profoundly in love with Jesus as man, with God-with-us. 

His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, in the "Vita Seconda," narrates that St. Francis, "above the other solemnities, celebrated with ineffable attention the birth of Baby Jesus, and he called the feast of feasts the day on which God, become a small child, nursed at a human breast" (Fonti Francescane, No. 199, p. 492).

From this particular devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation came the famous celebration of Christmas in Greccio. Most probably, St. Francis was inspired to have this celebration by his pilgrimage to the Holy Land and by the manger of St. Mary Major in Rome. What moved the Poor Man of Assisi was the desire to experience in an actual, concrete and living way the humble greatness of the event of Baby Jesus' birth, and to communicate his joy to everyone.

In the first biography, Thomas of Celano speaks of the night of Bethlehem in Greccio in a lively and moving manner, offering a decisive contribution to the spreading of this most beautiful Christmas tradition, the Nativity scene. The night of Greccio, in fact, has given back to Christianity the intensity and the beauty of the feast of Christmas, and has educated the people of God to learn its most authentic message, its particular warmth, and to love and adore the humanity of Christ. 

This particular approach to Christmas has brought a new dimension to Christian faith. Easter had focused attention on the power of God who overcomes death, inaugurates new life and teaches us to hope in the world to come. With St. Francis and his nativity, the defenseless love of God was shown, his humility and goodness, which in the incarnation of the Word is manifested to man so as to teach a new way to live and to love.

Celano narrates that, on that Christmas night, Francis was given a marvelous vision. He saw a little child lying still in a manger; the child woke up because Francis approached. And he adds: "This vision was not different than real life, since through the work of his grace acting by way of his holy servant Francis, the Child Jesus was resurrected in the hearts of many,  people who had forgotten him, and this was deeply impressed on his loving memory" (Vita prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 307).

These lines describe very well how Francis' living faith in and love for the humanity of Christ have been transmitted to the Christian feast of Christmas: the discovery that God reveals himself in the tiny fingers of the Child Jesus. Thanks to St. Francis, the Christian people have been able to perceive that at Christmas, God truly has become Emmanuel, God-with-us, from whom no barrier or distance can separate us. In this Child, God has come so near to each one of us, so close, that we can address him with confidence and maintain with him a trusting relationship of deep affection, as we do with a newborn.

In this Child, in fact, God-Love is manifested: God comes without weapons, without strength, because he does not aim to conquer, we could say, from without, but rather wants to be welcomed by man in liberty. God becomes a defenseless Child to conquer man's pride, violence and desire to possess. In Jesus, God took up this poor and defenseless condition to conquer with love and lead us to our true identity. We should not forget that the greatest title of Jesus Christ is precisely that of "Son," Son of God. Divine dignity is indicated with a term that makes reference to the humble condition of the manger in Bethlehem, though corresponding uniquely to his divinity, which is the divinity of the "Son."

His condition as a Child also shows us how we can find God and enjoy his presence. It is in the light of Christmas that we can understand the words of Jesus: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3).

He who has not understood the mystery of Christmas has not understood the decisive element of Christian existence. He who does not welcome Jesus with the heart of a child cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This is what Francis wanted to remind Christianity of his age and of every age, until today. 

Let us pray to the Father so that he concedes to our hearts this simplicity that recognizes the Lord in this Child, precisely as Francis did in Greccio. Then, we too can experience what Thomas of Celano said happened to those present in the event in Greccio -- referring to the experience of the shepherds on the holy night (cf. Luke 2:20) -- "Each one returned to his house filled with an ineffable joy" (Vita prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 479).

This is the wish that I affectionately express to all of you, to your families and loved ones. Merry Christmas to everyone!

[Translation by ZENIT]

[The Holy Father then addressed the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In these last days before Christmas, the Church invites us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Birth and to experience the joy and hope which the newborn Saviour brings into our world. Gazing on the Christ Child lying in the manger, we contemplate the love of a God who humbly asks us to welcome him into our hearts and into our world. By coming among us as a helpless Child, God conquers our hearts not by force, but by love, and thus teaches us the way to authentic freedom, peace and fulfilment. This Christmas, may the Lord grant us simplicity of heart, so that we may recognize his presence and love in the lowly Babe of Bethlehem, and, like the shepherds, return to our homes filled with ineffable joy and gladness.

I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience, especially the groups from the Philippines and the United States. In these holy days, may you and your families draw ever closer to the Lord and experience his heavenly gifts of love, joy and peace. Merry Christmas!

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