National Catholic Register



Christmas Is the Manifestation of God’s Love for Man

BY John Lilly

January 14-20, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/10/07 at 11:00 AM



REGISTER SUMMARY Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the meaning of Christmas during his general audience on Dec. 27. The Holy Father characterized Christmas as a celebration of the mystery of light — God’s eternal Word made flesh for our salvation. The Pope concluded his audience with a plea for all Christians to welcome God’s gift of himself to us: “The only way to give glory to God and to build peace on earth is by receiving with humility and trust the gift of Christmas: love.”

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s gathering is being held in the midst of the Christmas season, filled with joy because of our Savior’s birth. We celebrated this mystery the day before yesterday, and its echo pervades each day’s liturgy. It is the mystery of light that men and women of every era can relive in faith.

The words of John the Evangelist, whose feast we are celebrating today, resound in our hearts: “Et Verbum caro factum est (And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us) (John 1:14). On Christmas Day, God came to dwell among us. He came for us, to remain with us. One question permeates 2,000 years of the history of Christianity: “Why did he do it? Why did God become man?”

The hymn that the angels intoned at the stable in Bethlehem helps us to answer this question: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). This canticle from Christmas night, incorporated within the Gloria, has become part of our liturgy, like the other canticles from the New Testament that refer to Jesus’ birth and infancy: the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc dimities. Although the latter three have been inserted, respectively, in the morning, evening and night prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, the Gloria is found in the holy Mass.

At the end of the second century, several words of praise were added to the angels’ words: “We praise you, we bless you, we adore you, we glorify you, we give you thanks for your great glory.” Later, other words were added — “Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, you take away the sin of the world” — until a lively hymn of praise was formulated that was sung for the first time during the Christmas Mass and, later, on all feast days.

Inserted at the beginning of the Eucharistic celebration, the Gloria highlights the continuity that exists between the birth and the death of Christ, between Christmas and Easter, inseparable aspects of the one and only mystery of salvation.

The evangelist tells us that the multitude of angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” The angels announced to the shepherds that the birth of Jesus is glory for God in the highest, and is peace for those on whom his favor rests. Yet, it is quite appropriate that the angels’ words, uttered within the stable, are used to explain the mystery of Christmas, which was fulfilled in the manger. The word “glory” (doxa) points to the splendor of God who inspires thankful praise among his creatures.

As St. Paul later said, it is “the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). “Peace” (eirene) becomes the synthesis of the fullness of the messianic gifts and salvation, as the apostle notes, is identified with Christ himself: “For he is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). Herein lays the reference to men of “good will.” The word “good will” (eudokia) in ordinary language, evokes the thought of the “good will” of men, but here it indicates, rather, God’s “good will” towards mankind, which knows no limits. This is the message of Christmas: Through the birth of Jesus, God has manifested his good will towards all.

Let us return to the question, “Why did God become man?” As St. Irenaeus writes: “The Word became the one who dispenses the glory of the Father for the benefit of man. …The glory of God is vivens homo (man is alive) and his life consists in the vision of God” (Adv. Haer. IV:20:5-7). The glory of God is manifested, therefore, in the salvation of man, whom God so loved that, as John the Evangelist affirms, “he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Thus, love is the ultimate reason for Christ’s incarnation. The theologian Hans von Balthasar offers some rather eloquent reflections in this regard. He wrote that God “is not primarily absolute power but absolute love, whose sovereignty is manifested not by holding onto what belongs to him but by offering himself up” (Mysterium paschale I, 4). The God whom we contemplate in the manger is God-Love.

Thus, the angels’ announcement resounds as an invitation to us too: May there be glory to God in the highest and may there be peace among the men and women who love him!

The only way to give glory to God and to build peace on earth is by receiving with humility and trust the gift of Christmas: love. Then, the angels’ hymn becomes a prayer that we can repeat often and not only during the Christmas season — a hymn of praise to God in the highest and a fervent prayer for peace on earth that we translate into a concrete commitment to build through our lives. This is the task that Christmas entrusts to us.

(Register translation of the Dec. 27 general audience)