Thursday, December 24, 2009

God Manifests Himself as a Helpless Baby

Catechesis of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, December 23, 2009

Dear brothers and sisters,

With the Novena of Christmas which we have been celebrating these days, the Church invites us to live intensely and profoundly the preparation for the Birth of the Savior, which is now imminent.

The wish that we all have at heart is that the coming Christmas may give us, in the midst of the frenetic activity of our days, a serene and profound joy for being able to touch with our hand the goodness of our God and thereby draw new courage.

To better understand the significance of the Nativity of the Lord, I wish to make a brief reference to the historical origin of this solemnity. Indeed, the liturgical year of the Church as it developed does not start with the birth of Christ, but from faith in his resurrection. That is why the oldest feast of Christianity is not Christmas but Easter.

The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of Christian faith, it is the basis for the announcement of the Gospel, and it gave birth to the Church. Therefore, to be a Christian means to live in the Paschal way, becoming involved in the dynamism that begins with Baptism and leads to our dying to sin in order to live with God (cf. Rom 6:4).

The first to state firmly that Jesus was born on December 25 was Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary to the Book of the prophet Daniel, written around 204.

Some exegete later noted that that day was also the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, instituted by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C. The coincidence would be taken to signify that with Jesus, who appeared in the night as the light of God, the consecration of the temple was truly realized in God's Advent on earth.

In Christianity, the feast of Christmas took a definite form in the fourth century when it took the place of the Roman feast of Sol invictus - the invincible sun. This highlighted the fact that the birth of Christ is the victory of true light over the shadows of evil and sin.

Nonetheless, the particularly intense spiritual atmosphere surrounding Christmas developed during the Middle Ages, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, who was profoundly enamored of the man Jesus, the God-with-us. His first biographer, Tommaso da Celano, recounts that St. Francis, "above every other solemnity, celebrated with ineffable attentiveness the Birth of the Baby Jesus, calling the day on which God, as a little baby, first suckled on a human breast, the feast of feasts" (Fonti Francescane, n. 199, p. 492).

The famous Christmas celebration in Greccio arose from this special devotion to the mystery of the Incarnation. It was probably inspired by Francis's pilgrimage to the Holy Land and by the manger in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

What animated the Poverello of Assisi was the desire to experience in a concrete, living and actual manner the humble grandeur of the event of Christ's birth and to communicate its joy to everyone.

In his first biography of Francis, Tommaso da Celano describes the night of the creche in Greccio in a vivid and touching manner, making a decisive contribution to the dissemination of the most beautiful of Christmas traditions, the Christmas Nativity Scene. The night in Greccio, in fact, gave back to Christianity the intensity and beauty of Christmas, and educated the People of God to grasp its most authentic message, its special warmth, to love and adore the humanity of Christ.

Such an approach to Christmas gave the Christian faith a new dimension. Easter had focused attention on the power of God who conquers death, inaugurates new life, and teaches hope for the world to come. With St. Francis and his Christmas manger, what comes forth is the helpless love of the infant God, His humility and His goodness, who, in the Incarnation of the Word, shows Himself to men to teach them a new way to live and to love.

Celano recounts that on that Christmas night in Greccio, a miraculous vision was granted to Francis. He saw a small baby lying in the manger who awoke from sleep when Francis came near. Celano adds: "Nor was this vision in discord with the facts because, through the divine grace that acted through His holy servant Francis, the Baby Jesus re-awakened, in the hearts of many who had forgotten Him and was profoundly impressed in their loving memory" (Vita prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 307).

This picture describes precisely how much Francis's living faith and love for the humanity of Christ contributed to the Christian feast of the Lord's Nativity - the discovery that God revealed Himself in the tender body of the Baby Jesus.

Thanks to St. Francis, Christians have been able to perceive at Christmas that God truly became "Emmanuel," God-with-us, from whom no barrier and no distance separates us. In that Baby, God has become so near to each of us, so close, that we can talk to him familiarly and undertake with him a confidential relationship of profound affection such as we have for a newborn baby.

Indeed, God-Love manifests Himself in that Baby. God comes without weapons, without force, because He does not intend to conquer externally, so to speak, but wishes to be accepted freely by man. God became a helpless baby to conquer pride, violence, and man's desire for possession. In Jesus, God took on this poor and disarming condition to win us over with love and lead us to our true identity.

We must not forget that the greatest title of Jesus Christ is precisely that of "Son," Son of God. Divine dignity is described with a word that extends the memory of the humble condition of the manger in Bethlehem, even as it corresponds in a unique way to His divinity, which is the divinity of the Son.

His condition as a baby also shows us how we can encounter God and enjoy His presence. It is in the light of Christmas that we can understand the words of Jesus: "Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18,3).

He who has not understood the mystery of Christmas has not understood the decisive element of Christian existence. He who who does not receive Jesus with the heart of a child cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This is what Francis wanted to remind the Christians in his time and of all times, up to the present.

Let us pray to the Father so that He may grant to our hearts that simplicity which recognizes the Lord in the Baby, just as Francis did in Greccio. Then we too may experience what Tommaso da Celano - recallingthe experience of the shepherds on that Holy Night (cf. Lk 2,20) - tells us about those who were present in Greccio: "Everyone went home filled with ineffable joy" (Vita prima, op. cit., n. 86, p. 479).

This is the wish that I express with affection to all of you, your families and others dear to you. A merry Christmas to all!

After this address in Italian, Pope Benedict said in English:

In these last days before Christmas, the Church invites us to contemplate the mystery of Christ’s Birth and to experience the joy and hope which the newborn Saviour brings into our world. Gazing on the Christ Child lying in the manger, we contemplate the love of a God who humbly asks us to welcome Him into our hearts and into our world.

By coming among us as a helpless Child, God conquers our hearts not by force, but by love, and thus teaches us the way to authentic freedom, peace and fulfilment.

This Christmas, may the Lord grant us simplicity of heart, so that we may recognize His presence and love in the lowly Babe of Bethlehem, and, like the shepherds, return to our homes filled with ineffable joy and gladness.

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