Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the meaning of Christmas during his general audience on Dec. 23, pointing out that the Church invites us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s birth and experience the joy and hope that the newborn Savior brings into our world.
Gazing on the Child Jesus lying in the manger in the Nativity scene — a custom popularized by St. Francis of Assisi, we contemplate the love of a God who humbly asks us to welcome him into our hearts and into our world. By coming to us as a helpless child, God conquers our hearts not by force but by love, and thereby teaches us the way to true freedom, peace and fulfillment.
The Holy Father expressed his hope that the Lord would grant simplicity of heart to all to recognize his presence and love in the lowly Babe of Bethlehem and return home — like the shepherds — filled with holy joy.
Dear brothers and sisters,
During the Christmas novena, which we are now celebrating, the Church invites us to prepare ourselves in a deep and intense way for the birth of the Savior, which is now upon us. Our wish, which we all have at heart, is that this coming Christmas may give us, amid today’s frenetic activity, a profound and peaceful joy so that we may experience God’s goodness in a tangible way, thereby instilling new courage within us.
History of Christmas
To better understand the significance of the Lord’s birth, I wish to briefly allude to the historical origin of this solemnity. Indeed, the Church’s liturgical year did not initially develop on the basis of Christ’s birth, but rather on the basis of faith in his resurrection. Hence, the most ancient feast of Christianity is not Christmas but Easter.
Christ’s resurrection is the foundation for our Christian faith, the basis for the proclamation of the Gospel, and gave birth to the Church. Therefore, to be a Christian means to live the Paschal mystery and to become involved in that dynamic that begins with baptism and leads to death to sin in order to live with God (see Romans 6:4).
The first person to clearly affirm that Jesus was born on Dec. 25 was Hippolytus of Rome in his commentary to the book of the prophet Daniel, which he wrote around the year 204. One Scripture scholar, moreover, has noted that Dec. 25 was also the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, which Judas Maccabeus instituted in 164 B.C.
The concurrence of these two dates can be interpreted as signifying that the consecration of the Temple was truly fulfilled when God came to earth in Jesus, who appeared in the night as God’s light.
In the Christian world, the feast of Christmas assumed a distinct form in the fourth century when it replaced the Roman feast of the Sol invictus (the invincible sun). This highlighted the fact that the birth of Christ is the victory of the true light over the darkness of evil and sin.
However, the particularly intense spiritual devotion that now surrounds Christmas developed during the Middle Ages thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, who was profoundly enamored of Jesus the man, of the God-with-us.
Influence of St. Francis
According to St. Francis’ first biographer, Thomas of Celano, “The birthday of the Child Jesus Francis observed with inexpressible eagerness over all other feasts, saying that it was the feasts of feasts, on which God, having become a tiny infant, clung to human breasts” (Fonti Francescane, n. 199, p. 492).
This particular devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation was the origin of the famous Christmas celebration in Greccio. It was probably inspired by St. Francis’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and by the manger in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome, and by a desire to experience in a vivid, concrete and relevant way the lowly grandeur of Christ’s birth and to communicate this joy to everyone.
In his first biography of Francis, Thomas of Celano described the night of this Nativity scene in Greccio in a vivid and touching manner, thereby making a decisive contribution to the spread of the most beautiful Christmas tradition, the Christmas Nativity scene.
Indeed, the night in Greccio restored the intensity and beauty of Christmas to Christianity and educated God’s people on how to grasp its genuine message — its special warmth — to love and adore Christ’s humanity.
God’s Love for Mankind
This approach to Christmas bestowed a new dimension on the Christian faith. Easter had focused attention on the power of God, who conquers death, instills new life in us and teaches us to hope for the world to come.
St. Francis, through the Nativity scene, highlighted the defenseless love, humility and goodness of God, who, in the Incarnation of the Word, manifests himself to mankind in order to teach us a new way to live and to love.
Thomas of Celano recounts how, on that Christmas night, Francis was granted the grace of a marvelous vision. He saw a small child lying motionless in the manger, a child who was awakened from his sleep when Francis drew near. “This vision was not unfitting,” Thomas of Celano adds, “for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory” (Vita prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 307).
This portrait describes in a very precise manner how Francis’ living faith and love for Christ’s humanity contributed to the Christian feast of our Lord’s birth — the discovery that God revealed himself in the tiny body of the child Jesus. Thanks to St. Francis, the Christian people are able to understand that at Christmas God truly became the “Emmanuel,” the God-with-us, from whom no barrier or distance separates us.
In that child, God draws near to each and every one of us, so close that we can talk to him in the most intimate of terms and establish an intimate relationship with him of profound affection, just as we do with a newborn baby.
In that child, God-Love becomes manifest. God comes unarmed and powerless because it is not his desire to conquer, so to speak, from without. Rather, he wishes to be accepted by man in freedom.
God became a helpless child to overcome man’s pride, his violence, and his greedy desire to possess. In Jesus, God took on this poor and disarming condition in order to conquer us with his love and lead us to our true identity. We must not forget that Jesus Christ’s greatest title is precisely that of “Son,” the Son of God. God’s dignity is described with a word that reminds us of the humble condition of the manger in Bethlehem, though corresponding in a unique way to his divinity, which is the divinity of the “Son.”
Moreover, his being a child shows us how we can find God and enjoy his presence. It is in the light of Christmas that we can understand Jesus’ words, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
People who have not understood the mystery of Christmas have not understood the decisive element of Christian life — that those who do not welcome Jesus with the heart of a child cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven. This is what Francis wanted to remind the Christian world in his time and of all times, even today.
Let us ask the Father in prayer to grant our hearts the simplicity to recognize the Lord in the baby as Francis did in Greccio. Then, we too may experience what Thomas of Celano tells us those who were present in Greccio experienced, referring to what the shepherds experienced on that Holy Night (see Luke 2:20): “Each one returned to his home filled with holy joy” (Vita prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 479).
This is my wish, which I express with affection to all of you, as well as to your families and to those who are dear to you. Merry Christmas to all!