During his general audience Dec. 17, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the meaning of Christmas.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today is the beginning of the Christmas novena, that time in Advent of immediate preparation for the Lord’s birth, which many Christian communities celebrate with liturgies rich in texts from the Bible that aim to nourish our anticipation of the Savior’s birth.
Indeed, in faith, the entire Church focuses its attention on this imminent feast in order to prepare us — as it does every year — to join in the joyful canticle of the angels who, in the middle of the night, announced an extraordinary event, the Redeemer’s birth, to the shepherds, inviting them to go to the cave at Bethlehem.
There Emmanuel, the Creator who became a creature, lay wrapped in swaddling clothes and in a pitiful manger (see Luke 2:13-14).
Christmas is a universal feast because of the atmosphere that is its trademark.
Even those who are not Christian can perceive something extraordinary and transcendent in this yearly Christian event, something that is intimate and that speaks to the heart. It is a feast that celebrates the gift of life.
The birth of a baby should always be a joyful event. Holding a newborn baby in one’s arms normally arouses feelings of care and concern, emotion and tenderness.
Christmas is an encounter with a newborn baby whimpering inside a desolate cave. As we contemplate him in the manger, how can we not think of all the children in many parts of the world who are born today amid great poverty? How can we not think of those newborn babies who are unwelcome and who have been rejected and those who do not survive for lack of care and assistance? How can we not think of the families who desire the joy of having a child but whose hope remains unfulfilled?
Unfortunately, amid the pull of hedonistic consumerism, Christmas is in danger of losing its spiritual meaning and being reduced to a mere commercial occasion for buying and exchanging gifts.
Actually, the difficulties and uncertainties of the economic crisis that so many families have been personally experiencing during these past months and that affects all of mankind can truly serve as a stimulus for rediscovering the warmth of simplicity, friendship and brotherhood — values typical of Christmas.
Stripped of its trappings of materialism and consumerism, Christmas can be an opportunity to welcome as a personal gift the message of hope that emanates from the mystery of Christ’s birth.
God Made Man
Nevertheless, all of this does not suffice to fully grasp the value of the celebration 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 many Christmas homilies, exclaimed: “Let us be glad in the Lord, dearly beloved, and let us open our hearts to this most pure joy. For it is the dawn of the day that signifies for us new redemption, ancient preparation, eternal bliss. Thus is renewed for us the recurring yearly cycle of the lofty mystery of our salvation that, promised at the beginning and granted at the end of time, is destined to endure without end” (Homily XXII).
St. Paul returns to this fundamental truth several times in his letters.
For example, he wrote the following to the Galatians: “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” (Galatians 4:4).
In his Letter to the Romans, he points out the logical and demanding consequences of this saving event: “If 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” (Romans 8:17).
However, it is St. John, above all, who meditated most deeply on the mystery of the Incarnation in his prologue to the fourth Gospel. That is why the prologue has been part of the Christmas liturgy since ancient times.
In it is found the most authentic expression and the most profound synthesis of this feast, as well as the foundation for its joy. St. John writes: “Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis” — “And the Word was made flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).
At Christmas then, we are not simply commemorating the birth of some great person. We are not simply celebrating in an abstract way the mystery of the birth of mankind or the mystery of life in general. Much less are we simply celebrating the beginning of a new season.
At Christmas we recall something that is quite concrete and important for mankind, something essential to the Christian faith, a truth that St. John summarized in these few words: “The Word was made flesh.” This is a historical event that the Evangelist Luke is careful to place in a well-defined context — during the days when the decree for the first census under Caesar Augustus was promulgated, when Quirinius was governor of Syria (see Luke 2:1-7).
God Gives Meaning to Life
Therefore, the event that Israel had awaited for centuries took place on a night that can be historically dated.
In the darkness of the night in Bethlehem, a great light was truly lit. The Creator of the universe was made flesh, indissolubly joining himself to human nature, such that he was truly “God from God, Light from Light” and, at the same time, man — truly man.
What John calls in Greek ho logos — translated as Verbum in Latin [and in English as “the Word”] — also signifies “meaning.” Therefore, we could interpret John’s words this way: The “eternal Meaning” of the world became tangible to our senses and to our intellect; now we can touch it and contemplate it (see 1 John 1:1).
The “Meaning” that became flesh is not simply a general idea inherent in the world. It is a “Word” that is addressed to us.
The Logos knows us, calls us, guides us. It is not a universal law within which we then play some role. It is a Person who is interested in every single person. It is the Son of the living God, who became man in Bethlehem.
This may seem too beautiful to be true to many people, including all of us to some extent. In fact, here we have it stressed for us: Yes, there is a meaning, and this meaning is not a powerless protest against the absurd.
This Meaning has power: It is God. It is a good God who must not be confused with some lofty and distant being whom no one could ever reach, but a God who has become our neighbor and is very close to us, who has time for each one of us and who came to stay with us.
Spontaneously, we then ask ourselves: “Could something like this ever be possible? Is it not unworthy of God to become a baby?”
In an attempt to open our hearts to this truth which sheds light on our entire human existence, we need our minds to bow down and recognize that our intelligence is limited.
In the cave at Bethlehem, God reveals himself to us as a poor “infant” in order to overcome our pride. Perhaps we might surrender more easily to power or to wisdom.
But he does not want our surrender. Rather, he appeals to our heart and our free decision to accept his love. He became a little child in order to free us from the human delusion of grandeur that is the result of pride. He freely became flesh to make us truly free — free to love him.
A Time for Reflection
Dear brothers and sisters, Christmas is a special occasion to meditate on the meaning and value of our existence.
The approach of this solemnity helps us to reflect, on one hand, on the dramatic nature of a history in which men, wounded by sin, are perennially seeking happiness and a satisfying meaning to living and dying. On the other hand, it exhorts us to meditate on the merciful goodness of God, who came down to mankind in order to directly communicate the truth that saves and to make us participants in his friendship and life.
Therefore, let us prepare ourselves for Christmas with humility and simplicity, readying ourselves to receive as gifts the light, joy and peace that radiate from this mystery.
Let us welcome the birth of Christ as an event capable of renewing our lives today. May our encounter with the Baby Jesus make us people who do not think only of ourselves, but are open to the expectations and needs of our brothers and sisters!
In this way, we too become witnesses of the light that Christmas sheds on humanity during this third millennium.
Let us ask the Blessed Virgin Mary, the tabernacle of the Incarnate Word, and St. Joseph, the silent witness of the events of salvation, to communicate to us the sentiments they felt as they awaited the birth of Jesus so that we can prepare ourselves to celebrate in a holy way this coming Christmas in the joy of faith and inspired by a commitment to sincere conversion.
Merry Christmas to all!