Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Light has Appeared

Urbi et Orbi Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Christmas Day, December 25, 2008

“The grace of God our Saviour has appeared to all” (Tit 2:11, Vulg.)

Dear brothers and sisters, in the words of the Apostle Paul, I once more joyfully proclaim Christ’s Birth. Today “the grace of God our Saviour” has truly “appeared to all”!

It appeared! This is what the Church celebrates today. The grace of God, rich in goodness and love, is no longer hidden. It “appeared”, it was manifested in the flesh, it showed its face. Where? In Bethlehem. When? Under Caesar Augustus, during the first census, which the Evangelist Luke also mentions. And who is the One who reveals it? A newborn Child, the Son of the Virgin Mary. In him the grace of God our Saviour has appeared. And so that Child is called Jehoshua, Jesus, which means: “God saves”.

The grace of God has appeared. That is why Christmas is a feast of light. Not like the full daylight which illumines everything, but a glimmer beginning in the night and spreading out from a precise point in the universe: from the stable of Bethlehem, where the divine Child was born. Indeed, he is the light itself, which begins to radiate, as portrayed in so many paintings of the Nativity. He is the light whose appearance breaks through the gloom, dispels the darkness and enables us to understand the meaning and the value of our own lives and of all history. Every Christmas crib is a simple yet eloquent invitation to open our hearts and minds to the mystery of life. It is an encounter with the immortal Life which became mortal in the mystic scene of the Nativity: a scene which we can admire here too, in this Square, as in countless churches and chapels throughout the world, and in every house where the name of Jesus is adored.

The grace of God has appeared to all. Jesus – the face of the “God who saves”, did not show himself only for a certain few, but for everyone. Although it is true that in the simple and lowly dwelling of Bethlehem few persons encountered him, still he came for all: Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, those near and those far away, believers and non-believers - for everyone. Supernatural grace, by God’s will, is meant for every creature. Yet each human person needs to accept that grace, to utter his or her own “yes”, like Mary, so that his or her heart can be illumined by a ray of that divine light.

It was Mary and Joseph, who that night welcomed the incarnate Word, awaiting it with love, along with the shepherds who kept watch over their flocks (cf. Lk 2:1-20). A small community, in other words, which made haste to adore the Child Jesus; a tiny community which represents the Church and all people of good will. Today too those who await him, who seek him in their lives, encounter the God who out of love became our brother – all those who turn their hearts to him, who yearn to see his face and to contribute to the coming of his Kingdom. Jesus himself would say this in his preaching: these are the poor in spirit; those who mourn, the meek, those who thirst for justice; the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, and those persecuted for righteousness’ sake (cf. Mt 5:3-10). They are the ones who see in Jesus the face of God and then set out again, like the shepherds of Bethlehem, renewed in heart by the joy of his love.

Brothers and sisters, all you who are listening to my words: this proclamation of hope – the heart of the Christmas message – is meant for all men and women. Jesus was born for everyone, and just as Mary, in Bethlehem, offered him to the shepherds, so on this day the Church presents him to all humanity, so that each person and every human situation may come to know the power of God’s saving grace, which alone can transform evil into good, which alone can change human hearts, making them oases of peace.

May the many people who continue to dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (cf. Lk 1:79) come to know the power of God’s saving grace! May the divine Light of Bethlehem radiate throughout the Holy Land, where the horizon seems once again bleak for Israelis and Palestinians. May it spread throughout Lebanon, Iraq and the whole Middle East. May it bring forth rich fruit from the efforts of all those who, rather than resigning themselves to the twisted logic of conflict and violence, prefer instead the path of dialogue and negotiation as the means of resolving tensions within each country and finding just and lasting solutions to the conflicts troubling the region. This light, which brings transformation and renewal, is besought by the people of Zimbabwe, in Africa, trapped for all too long in a political and social crisis which, sadly, keeps worsening, as well as the men and women of the Democratic Republic of Congo, especially in the war-torn region of Kivu, Darfur, in Sudan, and Somalia, whose interminable sufferings are the tragic consequence of the lack of stability and peace. This light is awaited especially by the children living in those countries, and the children of all countries experiencing troubles, so that their future can once more be filled with hope.

Wherever the dignity and rights of the human person are trampled upon; wherever the selfishness of individuals and groups prevails over the common good; wherever fratricidal hatred and the exploitation of man by man risk being taken for granted; wherever internecine conflicts divide ethnic and social groups and disrupt peaceful coexistence; wherever terrorism continues to strike; wherever the basics needed for survival are lacking; wherever an increasingly uncertain future is regarded with apprehension, even in affluent nations: in each of these places may the Light of Christmas shine forth and encourage all people to do their part in a spirit of authentic solidarity. If people look only to their own interests, our world will certainly fall apart.

Dear brothers and sisters, today, “the grace of God our Saviour has appeared” (cf. Tit 2:11) in this world of ours, with all its potential and its frailty, its advances and crises, its hopes and travails. Today, there shines forth the light of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High and the son of the Virgin Mary: “God from God, light from light, true God from true God. For us men, and for our salvation, he came down from heaven”. Let us adore him, this very day, in every corner of the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a lowly manger. Let us adore him in silence, while he, still a mere infant, seems to comfort us by saying: Do not be afraid, “I am God, and there is no other” (Is 45:22). Come to me, men and women, peoples and nations, come to me. Do not be afraid: I have come to bring you the love of the Father, and to show you the way of peace.

Let us go, then, brothers and sisters! Let us make haste, like the shepherds on that Bethlehem night. God has come to meet us; he has shown us his face, full of grace and mercy! May his coming to us not be in vain! Let us seek Jesus, let us be drawn to his light which dispels sadness and fear from every human heart. Let us draw near to him with confidence, and bow down in humility to adore him. Merry Christmas to all!


The glory of the true God becomes visible when the eyes of our hearts are opened before the stable of Bethlehem.

Homily of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
Midnight Mass, December 25, 2008

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

“Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down upon the heavens and the earth?” This is what Israel sings in one of the Psalms (113(112), 5ff.), praising God’s grandeur as well as His loving closeness to humanity.

God dwells on high, yet He stoops down to us. God is infinitely great, and far, far above us. This is our first experience of Him. The distance seems infinite. The Creator of the universe, the One who guides all things, is very far from us: or so He seems at the beginning. But then comes the surprising realization: The One who has no equal, who “is seated on high,” looks down upon us. He stoops down. He sees us, and He sees me.

God’s looking down is much more than simply seeing from above. God’s looking is active. The fact that He sees me, that He looks at me, transforms me and the world around me. The Psalm tells us this in the following verse: “He raises the poor from the dust.” In looking down, He raises me up, He takes me gently by the hand and helps me – me! – to rise from depths towards the heights.

"God stoops down." This is a prophetic word. That night in Bethlehem, it took on a completely new meaning. God’s stooping down became real in a way previously inconceivable. He stoops down – He Himself comes down as a child to the lowly stable, the symbol of all humanity’s neediness and forsakenness. God truly comes down. He becomes a child and puts Himself in the state of complete dependence typical of a newborn child. The Creator who holds all things in His hands, on whom we all depend, makes Himself small and in need of human love.

God is in the stable. In the Old Testament, the Temple was considered almost as God’s footstool; the sacred ark was the place in which He was mysteriously present in the midst of men and women. Above the temple, hidden, stood the cloud of God’s glory. Now it stands above the stable. God is in the cloud of the poverty of a homeless child: an impenetrable cloud, and yet – a cloud of glory! How, indeed, could His love for humanity, His solicitude for us, have appeared greater and more pure?

The cloud of hiddenness, the cloud of the poverty of a child totally in need of love, is at the same time the cloud of glory. For nothing can be more sublime, nothing greater than the love which thus stoops down, descends, becomes dependent. The glory of the true God becomes visible when the eyes of our hearts are opened before the stable of Bethlehem.

Saint Luke’s account of the Christmas story, which we have just heard in the Gospel, tells us that God first raised the veil of His hiddenness to people of very lowly status, people who were looked down upon by society at large – to shepherds looking after their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem. Luke tells us that they were “keeping watch.” This phrase reminds us of a central theme of Jesus’s message, which insistently bids us to keep watch, even to the Agony in the Garden – the command to stay awake, to recognize the Lord’s coming, and to be prepared.

Here too the expression seems to imply more than simply being physically awake during the night hour. The shepherds were truly “watchful” people, with a lively sense of God and of His closeness. They were waiting for God, and were not resigned to His apparent remoteness from their everyday lives. To a watchful heart, the news of great joy can be proclaimed: for you this night the Saviour is born.

Only a watchful heart is able to believe the message. Only a watchful heart can instill the courage to set out to find God in the form of a baby in a stable. Let us ask the Lord to help us, too, to become a “watchful” people.

Saint Luke tells us, moreover, that the shepherds themselves were “surrounded” by the glory of God, by the cloud of light. They found themselves caught up in the glory that shone around them. Enveloped by the holy cloud, they heard the angels’ song of praise: “Glory to God in the highest heavens and peace on earth to people of His good will.” And who are these people of His good will if not the poor, the watchful, the expectant, those who hope in God’s goodness and seek Him, looking to Him from afar?

The Fathers of the Church offer a remarkable commentary on the song that the angels sang to greet the Redeemer. Until that moment – the Fathers say – the angels had known God in the grandeur of the universe, in the reason and the beauty of the cosmos that come from Him and are a reflection of Him. They had heard, so to speak, creation’s silent song of praise and had transformed it into celestial music. But now something new had happened, something that astounded them. The One of whom the universe speaks, the God who sustains all things and bears them in His hands – He Himself had entered into human history, He had become someone who acts and suffers within history.

From the joyful amazement that this unimaginable event called forth, from God’s new and further way of making Himself known – say the Fathers – a new song was born, one verse of which the Christmas Gospel has preserved for us: “Glory to God in the highest heavens and peace to His people on earth.” We might say that, following the structure of Hebrew poetry, the two halves of this double verse say essentially the same thing, but from a different perspective.

God’s glory is in the highest heavens, but His high state is now found in the stable – what was lowly has now become sublime. God’s glory is on the earth, it is the glory of humility and love. And even more: the glory of God is peace. Wherever He is, there is peace. He is present wherever human beings do not attempt, apart from Him, and even violently, to turn earth into heaven. He is with those of watchful hearts; with the humble and those who meet Him at the level of his own “height,” the height of humility and love. To these people He gives His peace, so that through them, peace can enter this world.

The medieval theologian William of Saint Thierry once said that God – from the time of Adam – saw that His grandeur provoked resistance in man, that we felt limited in our own being and threatened in our freedom. Therefore God chose a new way. He became a child. He made Himself dependent and weak, in need of our love. Now – this God who has become a child says to us – you can no longer fear me, you can only love me.

With these thoughts, we draw near this night to the child of Bethlehem – to the God who for our sake chose to become a child. In every child we see something of the Child of Bethlehem. Every child asks for our love. This night, then, let us think especially of those children who are denied the love of their parents. Let us think of those street children who do not have the blessing of a family home, of those children who are brutally exploited as soldiers and made instruments of violence, instead of messengers of reconciliation and peace. Let us think of those children who are victims of the industry of pornography and every other appalling form of abuse, and thus are traumatized in the depths of their soul.

The Child of Bethlehem summons us once again to do everything in our power to put an end to the suffering of these children; to do everything possible to make the light of Bethlehem touch the heart of every man and woman. Only through the conversion of hearts, only through a change in the depths of our hearts can the cause of all this evil be overcome, only thus can the power of the evil one be defeated. Only if people change will the world change; and in order to change, people need the light that comes from God, the light which so unexpectedly entered into our night.

And speaking of the Child of Bethlehem, let us think also of the place named Bethlehem, of the land in which Jesus lived, and which He loved so deeply. And let us pray that peace will be established there, that hatred and violence will cease. Let us pray for mutual understanding, that hearts will be opened, so that borders can be opened. Let us pray that peace will descend there, the peace of which the angels sang that night.

In Psalm 96(95), Israel, and the Church, praises God’s grandeur manifested in creation. All creatures are called to join in this song of praise, and so the Psalm also contains the invitation: “Let all the trees of the wood sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes” (v. 12ff.).

The Church reads this Psalm as a prophecy and also as a task. The coming of God to Bethlehem took place in silence. Only the shepherds keeping watch were, for a moment, surrounded by the light-filled radiance of his presence and could listen to something of that new song, born of the wonder and joy of the angels at God’s coming. This silent coming of God’s glory continues throughout the centuries. Wherever there is faith, wherever His word is proclaimed and heard, there God gathers people together and gives Himself to them in His Body; He makes them His Body.

God “comes.” And in this way our hearts are awakened. The new song of the angels becomes the song of all those who, throughout the centuries, sing ever anew of God’s coming as a child – and rejoice deep in their hearts. And the trees of the wood go out to Him and exult. The tree in Saint Peter’s Square speaks of Him, it wants to reflect His splendour and to say: Yes, He has come, and the trees of the wood acclaim Him. The trees in the cities and in our homes should be something more than a festive custom: they point to the One who is the reason for our joy – the God who for our sake became a child.

In the end, this song of praise, at the deepest level, speaks of Him who is the very tree of new-found life. Through faith in Him, we receive life. In the Sacrament of the Eucharist He gives Himself to us – He gives us a life that reaches into eternity.

At this hour we join in creation’s song of praise, and our praise is at the same time a prayer: Yes, Lord, help us to see something of the splendour of your glory. And grant peace on earth. Make us men and women of your peace. Amen.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo

In the 5199th year of the creation of the world, from the time when in the beginning God created heaven and earth;
from the flood, the 2957th year;
from the birth of Abraham, the 2015th year;
from Moses and the going-out of the people of Israel from Egypt, the 1510th year;
from the anointing of David as king, the 1032nd year;
in the 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel;
in the 194th Olympiad;
from the founding of the city of Rome, the 752nd year;
in the 42nd year of the rule of Octavian Augustus, when the whole world was at peace, in the sixth age of the world:
Jesus Christ, the eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming,
having been conceived by the Holy Ghost, and nine months having passed since His conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary, having become man.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Rededication of the Temple and the Festival of Lights

The Jewish Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) was instituted in the year 165 B.C. It is celebrated annually as a memorial of the rededication of the Temple with a new altar and purification of the sanctuary. Three years earlier, Antiochus Epiphanes had caused a pagan altar to be set up at the altar of burnt offerings in the Temple and sacrifices to be offered to his idol, called "Zeus Olympius."

The Maccabean revolt followed, led by Judas Maccabeus (Yehuda HaMakabi, "Judah the Hammer"). After many battles, the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple were recovered.

1 Maccabees 4:36-59
Judas Maccabeus and his brothers said, "Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it." So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion. They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a forest or on some mountain, and the priests' chambers demolished.

Then they tore their clothes and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes and fell with their faces to the ground. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.

Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the Abomination to an unclean place.

They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar of holocausts that had been desecrated. The happy thought came to them to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar. They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple hill, until a prophet should come and decide what to do with them.

Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one. They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and purified the courts. They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple. They also put loaves on the table and hung up curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Chislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, they arose and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar of holocausts that they had made. On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had defiled it, on that very day it was reconsecrated with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals. All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.

For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered holocausts and sacrifices of deliverance and praise. They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests' chambers and furnished them with doors. There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace of the Gentiles was removed.

Then Judas and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev.
Hanukkah, from the Hebrew word for "dedication" or "consecration", is also known as the Festival of Lights due to a miracle that allowed the Eternal Light of the Temple to burn for eight days, even though there was only enough oil to last one day.

This miracle is recounted in the Talmud (Shabbat 2),
The rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, Hanukkah commences and lasts eight days, on which lamenting (in commemoration of the dead) and fasting are prohibited. When the Hellenists entered the sanctuary, they defiled all the oil that was found there. When the government of the House of Asmoneans prevailed and conquered them, oil was sought (to feed the holy lamp in the sanctuary) and only one vial was found with the seal of the high priest intact. The vial contained sufficient oil for one day only, but a miracle occurred, and it fed the holy lamp eight days in succession. These eight days were the following year established as days of good cheer, on which psalms of praise and acknowledgment (of God's wonders) were to be recited.
The Eternal Light of the Temple represented God's everlasting presence, just as the sanctuary lamp placed before the tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament in Catholic churches are kept lit to indicate and honour the presence of Christ. In the synagogue, a perpetual lamp signifies the Lord's presence in the Torah, the Word of God. Although a Jewish holiday, Hanukkah can also be a time for Christians to remember that it is God Himself who is a Light that is everlasting and can never be extinguished. These days of rededication and the manifestation of God's eternal light remind us that evil will be defeated and, even if the evil has defiled the good in the meantime, God cannot be defeated. His light is everlasting. More than light from oil, which runs out, His is the eternal light which cannot be extinguished. Thus, this is a time of hope.

It is fitting, then, that He should be born and revealed to the world during this time of celebration of the Light.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

God Made Himself a Baby to Conquer Our Pride and Free Us to Love Him

In today's General Audience, Pope Benedict returns to his previous theme of Jesus as the God-Baby, which we also reflected upon earlier.

Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, December 17, 2008

Dear brothers and sisters!

Today begin those days of Advent which immediately prepare us for the Nativity of the Lord: we are within the Christmas Novena which in many Christian communities is celebrated with liturgies rich with Biblical texts, all oriented to nourish expectation for the birth of the Savior. In effect, the entire Church concentrates its look of faith on this imminent feast, predisposing us, as it does every year, to join the joyous song of the angels who in the middle of the night announced to shepherds the extraordinary event of the birth of the Redeemer, asking them to go to the cave in Bethlehem. There lay Emmanuel, the Creator who made Himself a creature, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a poor manger (cfr Lk 2,13-14).

Christmas is a universal feast because of the atmosphere that distinguishes it. Even those who are not Christian can, in fact, perceive in this annual Christian event something extraordinary and transcendent, something intimate that speaks to the heart. It is the feast that sings about the gift of life.

The birth of a baby should always be an event that brings joy. The embrace of a newborn baby normally arouses feelings of attention and concern, of emotion and tenderness. Christmas is an encounter with a newborn baby wailing inside a miserable cave. Contemplating Him in his manger-crib, how can we not think of all the babies who are born today into great poverty in many parts of the world? How can we not think of the many babies who are not welcome and who are rejected, of those who fail to survive for lack of care and attention? How can we not think of couples who would love the joy of having a child but fail to achieve this expectation?

Unfortunately, under the spur of hedonistic consumerism, Christmas risks losing its spiritual significance to be reduced to a mere commercial occasion for acquiring and receiving gifts. In fact, the difficulties, the uncertainties, and the very economic crisis which so many families are experiencing so directly these days, and which affects all of mankind, can be a stimulus to rediscover the warmth of simplicity, of friendship and of brotherhood, the values which are typical of Christmas.

Stripped of its consumeristic and materialistic incrustations, Christmas can become an occasion for welcoming, as a gift to oneself, the message of hope that comes from the mystery of Christ's birth. But all this does not suffice to fully grasp the value of the feast that we are awaiting. We know that it celebrates the central event of history: the Incarnation of the Divine Word for the redemption of mankind.

St. Leo the Great, in one of his many Christmas homilies, exclaimed: "Let us exult in the Lord, dear ones, and let us open our hearts to joy most pure. Because the day has come which means for us new redemption, ancient preparation, eternal happiness. In fact, in the recurrent annual cycles, the great mystery of our salvation is renewed for us - that promise made at the beginning for the end of times and destined to last without end" (Homily XXII).

St. Paul returns to this fundamental truth several times in his letters. To the Galatians, for example, he writes: "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 points out the logical and demanding consequences of this salvific event: "If (we are) children (of God), then we are also 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 meditated most profoundly on the mystery of the Incarnation. That is why the Prologue has been part of the Liturgy of the Nativity from the earliest times. In it is found the most authentic expression and the most profound synthesis of this feast, and the foundation of its joy. St. John writes: "Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis" (Jn 1,14) - And the Word was made flesh, and came to dwell among us.

At Christmas then, we are not just commemorating the birthday of a great personage. We are not simply celebrating in the abstract the mystery of man's birth or the mystery of life in general. Much less do we just celebrate the start of a new season.

At Christmas, we remember something very concrete and important to mankind, something essential to the Christian faith, a truth that St. John summarized in these few words, "The Word was made flesh."

It is a historic event that the evangelist Luke took care to situate in a well-determined context: in the days when the decree for the first census under Augustus Caesar was promulgated, when Quirinus was already governor of Syria (cfr Lk 2,1-7). Therefore, the event that Israel had awaited for centuries took place on a historically datable night. In the dark of night in Bethlehem, a great light was truly lit: the creator of the universe was incarnated, assuming human nature indissolubly - truly "God of God, Light of Light" and at the same time, man, true man.

What John calls in Greek “ho logos” - translated “Verbum” in Latin - also means “sense.” We can therefore understand John's expression this way: the “eternal Sense” of the world became tangible to our senses and to our intelligence; now we could touch it and contemplate it (cfr 1 Jn,1,1). The “Sense” that became flesh is not simply a general idea inherent in the world. It is a “Word” addressed to us. The Logos knows us, calls us, leads us.

It is not a universal law, within which we would then carry out some role. It is a Person who is interested in every single person. He is the Son of the living God, who made Himself human in Bethlehem.

To many, and in some way to all of us, this may seem too beautiful to be true. In fact, one must reiterate here: Yes, there is a sense (to life), and this sense is not an impotent protest against the absurd. This Sense has power: it is God.

A good God, who must not be confused with some exalted and remote being, who would never have come down to us, but a God who made Himself one of us and is very close to us, who has time for each of us, and who came to stay with us.

We then ask ourselves: "Could something of the kind ever be possible? Is it worthy of God to become a baby?" In order to open the heart to this truth which illuminates the entire human existence, we must bend our minds and recognize the limitations of our intelligence.

In the cave of Bethlehem, God showed Himself to us as a humble “infant” in order to conquer our pride. Perhaps we may yield more easily before power, before wisdom. But He does not want our surrender - He appeals instead to our heart and our free choice to accept His love. He made Himself small to liberate us from that human claim to grandeur that comes from pride. He freely incarnated as man to make us truly free - free to love Him.

Dear brothers and sisters, Christmas is a favored opportunity to meditate on the sense and value of our existence. May the approach of this feast help us to reflect, on the one hand, on the drama of history in which men, wounded by sin, are perennially in search of happiness and a fulfilling sense of life and death; on the other, 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 take part in His friendship and in His life.

Therefore, let us prepare ourselves for Christmas with humility and simplicity, disposing ourselves to receive as gifts the light, joy and peace which radiate from this mystery. Let us welcome the Nativity of Christ as an event capable of renewing our existence today. May the encounter with the Baby Jesus make us persons who do not think only of ourselves, but are open to the expectations and needs of our brothers. In this way we too become witnesses of the light that Christmas sheds on mankind in the third millennium.

Let us pray to the Most Blessed Mary, tabernacle of the Word incarnate, and to St. Joseph, silent witness to the events of salvation, to communicate to us the sentiments they felt as they awaited the birth of Jesus, so that we may prepare ourselves and celebrate in a holy way the coming Christmas, in the joy of faith and inspired by a commitment to sincere conversion.

A merry Christmas to everyone!


Saturday, December 06, 2008

St. Joseph, Model of Faith and Love
CCD Class Ten

In the Sacrament of Confirmation, we receive the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We are given the graces to be sanctified, to be made perfect in love and truth, just as our Father in heaven is perfect, so that we might better participate in the mission of the Church and be a witness for Christ. And, in reflecting upon our new life in the Faith, one of the absolute best models for us to follow is St. Joseph.

We do not speak much about Joseph these days. At first, it appears that we know very little about St. Joseph, and it is true that not much is said about him in the Gospels. Nevertheless, what is recorded about him says a lot. As with John the Baptist, Joseph prepares a way for the Lord and His Kingdom and, because he is an ancestor of David, like the Baptist, Joseph provides a link between the old covenant with Abraham and Moses and the new and everlasting covenant of Jesus Christ. However, perhaps his greatest roles are those of faithful protector and provider.

As with Mary, God chose Joseph for his role in salvation history. When an angel appeared to tell him to not be afraid to take the pregnant Mary into his home as his wife, that she had conceived through the Holy Spirit, and that he should name the child “Jesus,” Joseph complied and placed himself at the service of the Lord without hesitation. He took Mary, not only into his home, but into his heart, as his wife, and he took Jesus as his own son, selflessly accepting the vocations of faithful spouse and father.

Indeed, Joseph’s “Yes” to God was arguably a greater act of faith than the “Yes” given by Mary at the Annunciation. After Mary told him that she was with child through the Holy Spirit, a story lacking all credibility, Joseph could have very easily disbelieved the visit from the angel as merely an act of his subconscious during a dream. It is true that Mary could also have easily dismissed the visit from the angel at the Annunciation as an overactive imagination, but the message to her was soon confirmed by her pregnancy and the fact that Mary knew that she had not been with a man. However, Joseph had nothing of this world to confirm that she had not been with another man, but had instead conceived through the Holy Spirit. He had no proof, no evidence. Joseph had only Mary’s word for it, and the word of what easily could have been his imagination in a dream.

The Gospels state that Joseph was a “just” man, a "righteous" man, but in saving Mary from stoning to death – which he had decided to do before the visit from the angel -- his was an act of mercy, not justice, because the penalty under the Law for infidelity was death. After the angel’s revelation, notwithstanding good reason for doubt, Joseph placed his trust in Mary and his faith in God. Instead of demanding proof, instead of putting God to the test, Joseph acted on faith. Joseph acted on love.

It was not until the shepherds showed up at the stable after the birth of Jesus, claiming that an angel had appeared to them announcing the good news of the birth, that Joseph finally had any tangible confirmation that he was right to believe in Mary – he was right to act on love and have faith in God.

Joseph was a model of love – true love – not the false so-called “love” of feelings and emotions, of making himself happy, of satisfying his own wants and desires, but the true and perfect love of consciously deciding to empty himself and make a gift of self in seeking the good of others. Joseph set aside his own wants and dreams and aspirations of a typical marriage and family life and instead, in true love, devoted himself to Mary and Jesus.

In complete fidelity, Joseph placed himself entirely at their service. As the model husband and father, in addition to servant, Joseph was defender, protector, and provider. He took Mary and Jesus into his home and into his heart. He found shelter when there was no room at the inn; he took his family to Egypt when Herod was determined to destroy Jesus in Bethlehem; he kept them safely in Egypt until Herod’s demise, when they could safely return home to Nazareth; he worked as a craftsman, a carpenter, to provide a home for his family. When Mary and Jesus encountered the hardships of everyday life, it was Joseph who stood at their side, providing them help and encouragement.

Joseph was also counsellor and teacher to the young Jesus, providing him the usual education, instructing him in a trade, and proclaiming the faith to him. Joseph arranged for the circumcision of baby Jesus, the entrance into the covenant with God, and he presented him to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem. Joseph took Jesus to the synagogue to hear the word of God and, each Passover, Joseph took his family on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where, at age 12, Jesus was found discussing the faith with teachers in the Temple.

Aside from Mary, Joseph was closer to and knew Jesus more than any other person in history. Until his death, Joseph observed, participated in, and knew all the intimate details of Jesus’ life. It was Joseph who, together with Mary, most influenced and prepared Jesus for his adult and public life. Whereas John the Baptist prepared the world for Jesus, preparing the way for the Lord on a public level, it was Joseph who prepared the way for the Lord on a private level.

Indeed, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are the family of God. In them is the Church in miniature, the model for all of us in faith, love, hope, and truth.

Now, Joseph could have said “No.” Just as Mary the Immaculate retained free will, so too did Joseph have the freedom to refuse to be husband and father. He had the freedom to reject the message of the angel and allow Mary (and the unborn Jesus, because the Incarnation had already occurred) to be stoned to death, thereby defeating God’s plan for the salvation of the world. Just as God placed Himself at the mercy of Mary, making Himself small and defenseless in her womb, so too did God entrust Himself to Joseph, totally and completely vulnerable and defenseless. But God also knew Joseph to be just and righteous and, just as He chose Mary, the Father of Jesus in heaven specifically chose Joseph to be the father of Jesus on earth.

God knew, as we know now, that Joseph was and is a model of love and fidelity, a good and righteous man to whom He could entrust His Son. And so, we understand that, because he was protector and defender of Jesus, so too is Joseph protector and defender of the Church. Thus, as with Mary, we can turn to St. Joseph in heaven to protect us always. We can turn to him as our model in the Spirit that we received in Confirmation.

Gracious St. Joseph, protect us and our families from all evil as you did the Holy Family. Kindly keep us ever united in the love of Christ, ever fervent in imitation of the virtue of our Blessed Lady, your sinless spouse, and always faithful in devotion to you.

Let us pray: Father, you entrusted our Savior to the care of St. Joseph. By the help of his prayers may your Church continue to serve our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Jesus the God-Man, Jesus the God-Baby

Over at Conversion Diary, in a post about a talk on Advent, the question is asked, "Where do we see Christ, right here in this moment, at 8:48 on a Tuesday night?"

In the womb of Mary.

Throughout the year, when we think of Christ, we invariably think of Him during His ministry, Passion, Resurrection, or reigning up there in heaven. A couple of times during Christmastime, we speak of "baby Jesus," but there is often still a disconnect -- we think that the "real" Jesus is the adult whose words we know.

But there is great value in reflecting upon Jesus the baby. Just as there is great value in reflecting upon Jesus as the God/Man, fully God, yet fully a man, there is also great value in reflecting upon Jesus as the God/Baby, fully God, yet fully a tiny, defenseless, needy baby.

And there is value in looking down to see the baby in our own womb, or the womb of our wife, putting ourselves in the places of Mary and Joseph, embracing the not-yet-born Jesus with our hands.

Especially during Advent, this is the Jesus we should reflect upon, in addition to reflecting upon the usual waiting for the (adult) bridegroom/master/king to arrive.

As all-powerful as the Creator of the Universe is, Jesus the God/Baby teaches us that it is part of His plan to need our help, that He is relying on us to help Him, to feed Him, to clothe Him, to protect Him, to love Him. This is implicit in the whole idea of the Church - whose mission is to help Him - but the Baby Jesus places it in stark, tangible form. The Almighty makes Himself a baby so that we might welcome Him and love Him, and thereby love others.

Likewise, it is appropriate and helpful to consider the Baby Jesus in the context of our new life in the Faith by virtue of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Whereas Baptism is about personal redemption and initiation into the Church, Confirmation is about sanctification and joining in the Church's mission of being a witness for Christ, that is, loving Him and helping Him. Having received the fullness of the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, we are now better prepared to take the precious baby into our arms, to love and nurture Him and, like the shepherds and magi who will appear later, to make a gift to Him of ourselves.

And so, for whom do we await, where do we see Christ at this moment? Yes, He is the King, but He is also the Baby. Right now, He is the baby in the womb, the God who is literally drawing on the human flesh and life of Mary for His own (human) survival. The baby who needs her, the baby who needs us.

Of course, I'm not so smart as to think up something so profound myself. I stole the idea from (who else?) our professor Pope:

. . . God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby. God’s sign is that He makes Himself small for us. This is how He reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby – defenceless and in need of our help. He does not want to overwhelm us with His strength. He takes away our fear of His greatness. He asks for our love: so He makes Himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into His feelings, His thoughts and His will – we learn to live with Him and to practise with Him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love. God made Himself small so that we could understand Him, welcome Him, and love Him. . . .
The Son Himself is the Word, the Logos; the eternal Word became small – small enough to fit into a manger. He became a child, so that the Word could be grasped by us. In this way God teaches us to love the little ones. In this way He teaches us to love the weak. In this way He teaches us respect for children. The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn. Towards children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world; towards children who have to beg; towards children who suffer deprivation and hunger; towards children who are unloved. In all of these it is the Child of Bethlehem who is crying out to us; it is the God who has become small who appeals to us. Let us pray this night that the brightness of God’s love may enfold all these children. Let us ask God to help us do our part so that the dignity of children may be respected. May they all experience the light of love, which mankind needs so much more than the material necessities of life. . . .

--Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, Midnight Mass, Christmas 2006


Wednesday, December 03, 2008

With His light, God is stronger and, because of this, evil can be overcome.

Address of Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, 3 December 2008

In today's catechesis we reflect on the relationship between Adam and Christ, delineated by St. Paul in the well-known page of the Letter to the Romans (5:12-21), in which he instructs the Church on the essential lines of the doctrine of original sin. In fact, already in the First Letter to the Corinthians, referring to faith in the resurrection, Paul introduced the encounter between our forefather and Christ: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive ... The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Cor. 15:22.45).

With Romans 5:12-21, the encounter between Christ and Adam is more articulated and illuminating: Paul reviews the history of salvation from Adam to the Law and from the latter to Christ. Adam is not at the center of the scene with the consequences of sin on humanity, but Jesus Christ and grace that, through him, was poured in abundance on humanity. The repetition of "all the more" in regard to Christ underlines how the gift received in Him surpasses by far Adam's sin and the consequences brought on mankind, so that Paul can add at the end: "But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20). Hence, the encounter Paul traces between Adam and Christ brings to light the inferiority of the first man vis-à-vis the prevalence of the second.

On the other hand, it is appropriate to make evident the incommensurable gift of grace in Christ that Paul attributes to Adam's sin: It could be said that if it were not to demonstrate the centrality of grace, he would not have hesitated to discuss sin that "came into the world through one man and death through sin" (Romans 5:12). Because of this, if in the faith of the Church the awareness of the dogma of original sin matured, it is because it is indissolubly connected with the other dogma, that of salvation and freedom in Christ. The consequence of this is that we must never treat the sin of Adam and of humanity in a way that is detached from the salvific context, namely, without understanding it on the horizon of justification in Christ.

However, as men of today we must ask ourselves: What is this original sin? What does St. Paul teach, what does the Church teach? Is this doctrine still tenable today? Many think that, in the light of the history of evolution, there is no longer a place for the doctrine of a first sin, which then spread to the whole history of humanity. And, consequently, the question of the Resurrection and of the Redeemer would also lose its foundation.

So, does original sin exist or not? To be able to respond we must distinguish two aspects of the doctrine on original sin: there is (1) an empirical, tangible reality, and (2) a mysterious aspect, regarding the ontological foundation of the event.

The empirical fact is that there is a contradiction in our being. On one hand, every man knows that he must do good and he profoundly wants to do so. However, at the same time, he also feels the other impulse to do the contrary, to follow the path of egoism, violence, of doing only what pleases him even while knowing that he is acting against the good, against God and against his neighbor. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul expressed this contradiction in our being thus: "I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (7:18-19). This interior contradiction of our being is not a theory. Each one of us experiences it every day. And above all we always see around us the prevalence of this second will. Suffice it to think of the daily news on injustice, violence, falsehood, lust. We see it every day: It is a fact.

As a consequence of this power of evil in our souls, a filthy river has developed in history, which poisons the geography of human history. The great French thinker Blaise Pascal spoke of a "second nature," which is superimposed on our original good nature. This "second nature" makes evil appear as normal for man. Thus, even the usual expression: "this is human" has a double meaning. "This is human" might mean: This man is good, he really acts as a man should act. However, "this is human" might also mean falsehood: Evil is normal, it is human. Evil seems to have become a second nature. This contradiction of the human being, of our history, should provoke and provokes even today the desire for redemption. And, in fact, the desire that the world be changed and the promise that a world be created of justice, peace, goodness is present everywhere: In politics, for example, all speak of this need to change the world, to create a more just world. It is precisely this expression of the desire that there be a liberation from the contradiction we experience in ourselves.

Hence, the fact of the power of evil in the human heart and in human history is undeniable. The question is: How is this evil explained? In the history of thought, except for the Christian faith, there is a principal model of explanation, with several variations. This model says: being itself is contradictory, it bears within it good and evil. In ancient times this idea implied the opinion that two equally original principles existed: a good principle and an evil principle. This dualism was insurmountable; the two principles are on the same level, hence there will always be, from the origin of being, this contradiction. The contradiction of our being, therefore, reflects only the contrariety of two divine principles, so to speak.

In the evolutionist, atheist version of the world the same vision returns in a new way. Even if, in such a concession, the vision of being is monistic, it is implied that being as such from the beginning bears in itself evil and good. Being itself is not simply good, but open to good and evil. Evil is equally original as good, and human history would develop only the model already present in the whole of the preceding evolution. That which we Christians call original sin is in reality only the mixed character of being, a mixture of good and evil, according to this theory, it belonged to the very fabric of being. Deep down, it is a despairing vision: If it is so, evil is invincible. In the end, only self-interest matters. And every progress would necessarily have to be paid for with a river of evil and whoever wishes to serve progress must accept to pay this price. Politics, deep down, is based precisely on these premises: And we see the effects. This modern thought can, in the end, only create sadness and cynicism.

And so we ask again: What does faith say, as witnessed by St. Paul? As a first point, it confirms the fact of the competition between the two natures, the fact of this evil whose shadow weighs on the whole of creation. We heard Chapter 7 of the Letter to the Romans, we can add Chapter 8. Evil simply exists. As explanation, in contrast with the dualisms and monisms that we considered briefly and found desolating, faith tells us: There are two mysteries of light and one mystery of night, which is, however, shrouded by the mysteries of light.

The first mystery of light is this: Faith tells us that there are not two principles, one good and one evil, but only one principle, the creator God, and this principle is good, only good, without a shadow of evil. As well, being is not a mixture of good and evil; being as such is good and because of this it is good to be, it is good to live. This is the happy proclamation of faith: there is only one good source, the Creator. And because of this, to live is good, it is a good thing to be a man, a woman, life is good.

Then a mystery of darkness, of night follows. Evil does not come from the source of being itself, it is not equally original. Evil comes from a created liberty, from an abused liberty.

How was this possible, how did it happen? This remains obscure. Evil is not logical. Only God and the good are logical, are light. Evil remains mysterious. It has been presented in great images, as does chapter 3 of Genesis, with the vision of two trees, of the serpent, of sinful man. A great image that makes us guess, but it cannot explain how much in itself is illogical. We can guess, not explain; nor can we recount it as a fact next to another, because it is a more profound reality. It remains a mystery of darkness, of night. However, a mystery of light is immediately added. Evil comes from a subordinate source. With his light, God is stronger and, because of this, evil can be overcome. Therefore, the creature, man, is curable. But if evil comes only from a subordinate source, it remains true that man is curable. And the Book of Wisdom says: "the creatures of the world are wholesome" (1:14).

And finally, the last point, man is not only curable, he is in fact cured. God has introduced healing. He entered in person into history. To the permanent source of evil he has opposed a source of pure good. Christ crucified and risen, the new Adam, opposed the filthy river of evil with a river of light. And this river is present in history: We see the saints, the great saints but also the humble saints, the simple faithful. We see that the river of light that comes from Christ is present, is strong.

Brothers and sisters, it is the time of Advent. In the language of the Church the word Advent has two meanings: presence and expectation.

Presence: The light is present, Christ is the new Adam, he is with us and in our midst. The light already shines and we must open the eyes of the heart to see the light and to enter the river of light. Above all to be grateful for the fact that God himself has entered history as new source of goodness.

But Advent also means expectation. The dark night of evil is still strong. And that is why we pray in Advent with the ancient people of God: "Rorate caeli desuper." And we pray with insistence: Come Jesus; come, give force to light and goodness; come where falsehood, ignorance of God, violence and injustice dominate; come, Lord Jesus, give force to the good of the world and help us to be bearers of your light, agents of peace, witnesses of truth. Come Lord Jesus!