On the Meaning and Value of Our Lives
Christ "Appeals … to Our Free Decision to Accept His Love"
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VATICAN CITY, DEC. 17, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered during today's general audience in Paul VI Hall.
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Dear brothers and sisters:
Precisely today, we begin the days of Advent that immediately prepare us for the nativity of the Lord: We are in the Christmas novena, which in many Christian communities is celebrated with liturgies rich in biblical texts, all oriented toward nourishing hope for the birth of the Savior. The entire Church, in effect, turns its gaze of faith toward this approaching feast, readying itself, like each year, to unite to the joyful song of the angels, who in the heart of the night will announce to the shepherds the extraordinary event of the birth of the Redeemer, inviting them to draw close to the cave of Bethlehem. There lies Emanuel, the Creator made creature, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a poor manger (cf. Luke 2:13-14).
Because of the environment that characterizes it, Christmas is a universal feast. Even those who do not profess to be believers, in fact, can perceive in this annual Christian celebration something extraordinary and transcendent, something intimate that speaks to the heart. It is the feast that sings of the gift of life. The birth of a child moves us and causes tenderness. Christmas is the encounter with a newborn who cries in a miserable cave. Contemplating him in the manger, how can we not think of so many children who even today see the light from within a great poverty in many regions of the world? How can we not think of the newborns who are not welcomed and are rejected, of those who do not survive because of a lack of care and attention? How can we not think, too, of the families who desire the joy of a child and do not see this hope fulfilled?
Under the influence of a hedonistic consumerism, unfortunately, Christmas runs the risk of losing its spiritual significance to be reduced to a mere commercial occasion to buy and exchange gifts. In truth, nevertheless, the difficulties and the uncertainties and the very economic crisis that in these months so many families are living, and which affects all of humanity, can be a stimulus to discover the warmth of simplicity, friendship and solidarity -- characteristic values of Christmas. Stripped of consumerist and materialist incrustations, Christmas can thus become an occasion to welcome, as a personal gift, the message of hope that emanates from the mystery of the birth of Christ.
All of this, nevertheless, is not enough to assimilate fully the value of the feast for which we are preparing. We know that it celebrates the central event of history: the incarnation of the divine Word for the redemption of humanity. St. Leo the Great, in one of his numerous Christmas homilies, thus exclaimed: "Let us exult in the Lord, my dear ones, and open our hearts to the most pure joy. Because the day has dawned that for us means the new redemption, the ancient preparation, eternal bliss. Thus in the yearly cycle, the elevated mystery of our salvation is renewed for us, which, promised at the beginning and fulfilled at the end of times, is destined to endure without end (Homily XXII).
St. Paul returns to this fundamental truth many times in his letters. To the Galatians, for example, he writes: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law … so that we might receive adoption" (4:4). In the Letter to the Romans he sets forth the logic and consequent demands of this saving event: "And if [we are] children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (8:17).
But it is above all St. John, in the prologue to the fourth Gospel, who meditates profoundly on the mystery of the Incarnation. And it is because of this that the prologue has been part of the Christmas liturgy since ancient times: There is found, in fact, the most authentic expression and the deepest synthesis of this feast, and of the base of his joy. St. John writes: "Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis" -- And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
At Christmas, then, we are not limited to commemorating the birth of a great personality; we do not celebrate simply and in the abstract the mystery of the birth of man or in general, the birth of life; neither do we celebrate only the beginning of a great season. At Christmas, we remember something very concrete and important for man, something essential for Christian faith, a truth that St. John summarized in these few words: "The Word was made flesh."
It is a historical event that the Evangelist Luke concerns himself with situating in a very determined context: in the days in which the decree of the first census of Caesar Augustus was issued, when Quirinius was already governor of Syria (cf. Luke 2:1-7). It is therefore a night dated historically, in which was verified the salvation event that Israel had been awaiting for centuries. In the darkness of the night of Bethlehem, a great light was truly lit: The Creator of the universe incarnated himself, uniting himself indissolubly with human nature, to the point of really being "God from God, light from light" and at the same time, man, true man.
That which John calls in Greek "ho logos," translated in Latin "Verbum" and in Italian, "il Verbo" (the Word), also means "the Meaning." Therefore, we can understand John's expression in this way: the "eternal Meaning" of the world has made himself tangible to our senses and our intelligence. Now we can touch him and contemplate him (cf. 1 John 1:1). The "Meaning" that has become flesh is not simply a general idea inscribed in the world; it is a "word" directed to us. The Logos knows us, calls us, guides us. It is not a universal law, in which we fulfill some role, but rather it is a Person who is interested in each individual person: It is the living Son of God, who has become man in Bethlehem.
To many people, and in some way to all of us, this seems too beautiful to be true. In effect, here it is reaffirmed for us: Yes, there is meaning, and this meaning is not an impotent protest against the absurd. The Meaning is powerful: It is God. A good God, who is not to be confused with some lofty and distant power, to which it is impossible to ever arrive, but rather a God who has made himself close to us and to our neighbor, who has time for each one of us and who has come to stay with us.
Thus the question spontaneously arises: How is such a thing possible? Is it worthy of God to become a child? To try to open one's heart to this truth that enlightens all of human existence, it is necessary to yield the mind and recognize the limits of our intelligence. In the cave at Bethlehem, God shows himself to us as a humble "infant" to overcome our pride. Perhaps we would have submitted more easily before power, before pride; but he does not want our submission. He appeals, rather, to our heart and to our free decision to accept his love. He has made himself little to free us from this human pretension of greatness that arises from pride; he has incarnated himself freely to make us truly free, free to love him.
Dear brothers and sisters, Christmas is a privileged opportunity to meditate on the meaning and value of our existence. Approaching this solemnity helps us to reflect, on one hand, about the drama of history in which men, wounded by sin, are permanently seeking happiness and a satisfactory meaning to life and death; on the other hand, it exhorts us to meditate on the merciful goodness of God, who has gone out to meet man to communicate to him directly the Truth that saves, and make him participate in his friendship and his life.
Let us prepare for Christmas, therefore, with humility and simplicity, readying ourselves to receive the gift of light, joy and peace that irradiates from this mystery. Let us welcome the nativity of Christ as an event capable of today renewing our existence. May the encounter with the Child Jesus make us people who do not think only of ourselves, but rather open to the expectations and necessities of our brothers. In this way we too become testimonies of the light that Christmas radiates over the humanity of the third millennium. Let us ask most holy Mary, the tabernacle of the incarnate Word, and St. Joseph, silent witness of the events of salvation, to communicate to us the sentiments they had while they awaited the birth of Jesus, so that we can prepare ourselves to celebrate in a holy way the coming Christmas, in the joy of faith and enlivened by the determination of a sincere conversion.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today we commence the Christmas Novena of Advent by contemplating the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies in the coming of the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary in the stable of Bethlehem. Christmas speaks to everyone; it celebrates the gift of life – often fragile or endangered – and the fulfilment of our deepest hopes for a world renewed. The present economic crisis, causing so much suffering, can however help us to focus on the spiritual meaning of Christmas, and to welcome into our hearts the hope brought by God’s coming among us as man. The Word became flesh to offer humanity the salvation which can only be received as a gracious gift from God. The same Word by whom the universe was made, the Word which gives all creation its ultimate meaning, has come to dwell among us: he now speaks to us, he reveals the deepest meaning of our life on earth, and he guides us to the Love which is our fulfilment. In the Christ Child, God humbly knocks on the doors of our hearts and asks us freely to accept his love, his truth, his life. As Christmas approaches, let us rekindle our hope in God’s promises and, in humility and simplicity, welcome the light, joy and peace which the Saviour brings to us and to our world.
I am pleased to greet all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, including the various student groups and those coming from Ireland and the United States of America. To you and your families, especially those who may be in difficulty or suffering, I extend my best wishes for a happy and blessed Christmas!
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