Catechesis of Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, 21 December 2011
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am happy to welcome you to the General Audience just a few days from the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. The greeting on everyone's lips these days is 'Merry Christmas! Best wishes for the holidays!"
Let us do it in a way so that, even in our present society, the greeting we exchange does not lose its profound religious value, and that the celebration does not get absorbed by its exterior aspects but that they should touch the heartsrings.
Of course, the external signs are beautiful and important, as long as they do not take away from Christmas, but rather help us to live Christmas in its truest sense -- the sacred and Christian sense -- and cause our joy to be not superficial, but deep.
With the Christmas liturgy, the Church introduces us to the great Mystery of the Incarnation. Christmas, in fact, is not a mere anniversary of Jesus' birth -- it is also this, but it is more -- it is the celebration of a mystery that has marked and continues to mark mankind's history -- God Himself came to dwell among us (cf. John 1:14), He made Himself one of us; a mystery that concerns our faith and our very lives; a mystery that we experience concretely in the liturgical celebrations, especially in the Holy Mass.
One might ask: How can I live out now an event that took place so long ago? How can I take part fruitfully in the birth of the Son of God which took place more than 2000 years ago?
In the Holy Mass on Christmas Eve, we say the following refrain in the Responsorial Psalm: "Today the Savior is born to us." This adverb of time, "Today," which is used repeatedly throughout the Christmas celebrations, refers to the event of Jesus' birth and to the salvation that the incarnation of the Son of God comes to bring.
In the liturgy, this event transcends all the limits of space and time and becomes actual, present. Its effect continues, even amidst the passing of days, years and centuries. In indicating that Jesus is born "today," the liturgy does not use a meaningless phrase, but underscores that this birth affects and permeates the whole of history -- even today, it remains a reality to which we may attain, precisely in the liturgy. For believers, the celebration of Christmas renews our certainty that God is really present with us, still "flesh" and not far away: being with the Father as well as with us. In that Child born in Bethlehem, God drew near to man: we can encounter Him now -- in a "today" whose sun knows no setting.
I would like to stress this point, because modern man -- a man of "the sensible," of the empirically verifiable -- finds it increasingly more difficult to open his horizons and enter the world of God. The Redemption of mankind certainly took place at a precise and identifiable moment in history: in the event of Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus is the Son of God -- He is God Himself, who not only spoke to man, showed him wondrous signs and guided him throughout the history of salvation -- but became man and remains man. The Eternal entered into the limits of time and space, in order to make possible an encounter with Him "today."
The liturgical texts of Christmas help us to understand that the events of salvation wrought by Christ are always actual, and of interest to every man and of all mankind. When we hear or proclaim in the liturgy the words "Today a Savior is born to us," we are not using an empty conventional expression, rather, we mean that God offers us "today" -- now -- to me, to each one of us, the possibility of acknowledging and receiving Him like the shepherds in Bethlehem, so that He might be born in our lives and renew them, enlighten them, transform them by His grace, by His Presence.
Christmas, then, while commemorating Jesus' birth in the flesh of the Virgin Mary -- and numerous liturgical texts put before our eyes this or that event -- is an efficacious event for us. Pope St. Leo the Great, in presenting the profound meaning of the Feast of the Nativity, issued an invitation to the faithful with these words:
"Let us exult in the Lord, o my dear ones, and let us open our hearts to the purest joy, because there has dawned for us the day of ever-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss. For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us the commemoration of our salvation, which promised from the beginning and accomplished in the fullness of time, will endure for ever." (Sermon 22, In Nativitate Domini, 2,1; PL 54,193)And again, in another Christmas homily St. Leo the Great affirms:
"Today the Maker of the world was born of a Virgin's womb, and He who made all things made Himself the son of a woman whom He Himself had created. Today the Word of God has become clothed in flesh, and That which had never been seen by human eyes was made visible and palpable. Today the shepherds learned from angels' voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul." (Sermon 26, In Nativitate Domini, 6,1; PL 54,213)There is a second aspect that I would like to touch upon briefly. The event of Bethlehem should be considered in the light of the Paschal Mystery: The one and the other are part of the one redemptive work of Christ.
Jesus' incarnation and birth invite us to direct our gaze to His death and resurrection: Christmas and Easter are both feasts of the Redemption. Easter celebrates it as the victory over sin and death: It signals the final moment, when the glory of the Man-God shines forth as the light of day. Christmas celebrates it as God's entrance into history, His becoming man in order to restore man to God: It marks, so to speak, the initial moment when we begin to see the first light of dawn.
And just as the dawn precedes and presages the light of day, so Christmas already announces the Cross and the glory of the Resurrection.
Even the two times of year when we mark the two great feasts -- at least in some parts of the world -- can help us to understand this aspect. So, just as Easter comes at the start of spring, when the sun triumphs over fog and cold, and renews the face of the earth, Christmas falls at the start of winter, when the light and warmth of the sun are unable to reawaken nature, wrapped in cold. Under this blanket, however, life throbs and the victory of the sun and warmth begins again.
The Fathers of the Church always interpreted Christ's birth in the light of the whole work of Redemption, which finds its summit in the Paschal Mystery. The incarnation of the Son of God appears not only as the start and condition for salvation, but as the very presence of the mystery of our salvation. God becomes man, He is born a babe like us, He takes on our flesh to conquer death and sin.
Two important texts of St. Basil illustrate this well. St. Basil tells the faithful:
"God assumes flesh precisely to destroy death, which is hidden in all flesh. Just as the antidotes to a poison annul its effects once they are ingested, and just as the shadows in a house are dissipated by sunlight, so death which dominated human nature was destroyed by the presence of God. And as ice remains solid in water as long as night endures and darkness reigns, but melts at once by the sun's heat, so was death -- which had reigned until the coming of Christ -- as soon as the grace of God our Savior appeared, and the Sun of Justice arose, 'swallowed up in victory' (1 Cor. 15:54), being unable to coexist with Life." (Homily on the Birth of Christ, 2: PG 31,1461)And again, in another text St. Basil issues this invitation:
"Let us celebrate the world's salvation and mankind's birth. Today Adam's guilt has been remitted. Now we need no longer say: 'you are dust and to dust you shall return' (Genesis 3:19), but rather: united to Him who descended from heaven, you shall be admitted into heaven. (Homily on the Birth of Christ, 6: PG 31,1473)At Christmas, we encounter the tenderness and love of God who stoops down to our limitations, to our weaknesses, to our sins -- He lowers Himself to our level. St. Paul affirms that Jesus Christ "though He was in the form of God ... emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men" (Phil. 2:6-7). Let us look upon the cave of Bethlehem: God lowers Himself to the point of being laid in a manger -- which is already a prelude of His self-abasement in the hour of His Passion. The climax of the love story between God and man passes by way of the manger of Bethlehem and the sepulcher of Jerusalem.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us joyously live the feast of Christmas, which now draws near. Let us live this wondrous event: The Son of God again is born "today"; God is truly close to each one of us, and He wants to meet us -- He wants to bring us to Himself.
He is the true light which dispels and dissolves the darkness enveloping our lives and mankind. Let us live the Nativity of the Lord by contemplating the journey of God's immense love, which raised us to Himself through the mystery of the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of His Son, for -- as St. Augustine affirms -- "In Christ, the divinity of the Only Begotten was made a partaker of our mortality, so that we might be made partakers of His immortality" (Letter 187,6,20: PL 33: 839-840).
Above all, let us contemplate and live this Mystery in the celebration of the Eucharist, the heart of Christmas, in which Jesus becomes truly present, true Bread descended from heaven, true Lamb sacrificed for our salvation.
To you and to your families, I wish a truly Christian celebration of Christmas, so that even your exchange of greetings on that day will be expressions of the joy of knowing that God is near and wants to accompany us along life's journey.