To: (Multiple email addresses may be specified by separating them with a comma)
Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience December 23, 2009
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.
brothers and sisters,
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Influence of St. Francis
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.
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 feast of feasts, on which God, having become a tiny
infant, clung to human breasts” (Fonti
Francescane, n. 199, p. 492).
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’ 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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).
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!