|God's sign is his humility
On Christmas Eve, 24
December 2009, the Holy Father presided at Midnight Mass in St Peter's
Basilica. As stated in the Press Release issued on Christmas Day by Fr
Federico Lombardi, SJ, Director of the Holy See Press Office, during the
entry procession a young
woman jumped over the barrier and threw herself at the Pope, "grabbing
his pallium, causing him to lose his balance and fall". The Pope stood
up immediately and was able to continue the rest of the celebration with
no further problems. The following is a translation of the Pope's
Homily, given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
"A child is born for us, a
son is given to us" (Is 9:5). What Isaiah prophesied as he gazed into
the future from afar, consoling Israel amid its trials and its darkness,
is now proclaimed to the shepherds as a present reality by the Angel,
from whom a cloud of light streams forth: "To you is born this day in
the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11). The Lord
is here. From this moment, God is truly "God with us". No longer is he
the distant God who can in some way be perceived from afar, in creation
and in our own consciousness. He has entered the world. He is close to
The words of the risen
Christ to his followers are addressed also to us: "Lo, I am with you
always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20). For you the Saviour is
born: through the Gospel and those who proclaim it, God now reminds us
of the message that the Angel announced to the shepherds. It is a
message that cannot leave us indifferent. If it is true, it changes
everything. If it is true, it also affects me. Like the shepherds, then,
I too must say: Come on, I want to go to Bethlehem to see the Word that
has occurred there. The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel
for a reason. They show us the right way to respond to the message that
we too have received. What is it that these first witnesses of God's
Incarnation have to tell us?
The first thing we are told
about the shepherds is that they were on the watch
they could hear the message precisely because they were awake. We must
be awake, so that we can hear the message. We must become truly vigilant
people. What does this mean? The principal difference between someone
dreaming and someone awake is that the dreamer is in a world of his own.
His "self" is locked into this dream world that is his alone and does
not connect him with others. To wake up means to leave that private
world of one's own and to enter the common reality, the truth that alone
can unite all people.
Conflict and lack of
reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into
our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world.
Selfishness, both individual and collective, makes us prisoners of our
interests and our desires that stand against the truth and separate us
from one another.
Awake, the Gospel tells us.
Step outside, so as to enter the great communal truth, the communion of
the one God. To awake, then, means to develop a receptivity for God: for
the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us; for the many
indications of his presence. There are people who describe themselves as
"religiously tone deaf". The gift of a capacity to perceive God seems as
if it is withheld from some. And indeed
our way of thinking and acting, the mentality of today's world, the
whole range of our experience is inclined to deaden our receptivity for
God, to make us "tone deaf" towards him. And yet in every soul, the
desire for God, the capacity to encounter him, is present, whether in a
hidden way or overtly.
In order to arrive at this
vigilance, this awakening to what is essential, we should pray for
ourselves and for others, for those who appear "tone deaf" and yet in
whom there is a keen desire for God to manifest himself. The great
theologian Origen said this: if I had the grace to see as Paul saw, I
could even now (during the Liturgy) contemplate a great host of angels
(cf. in Lk 23:9). And indeed, in the sacred Liturgy, we are surrounded
by the angels of God and the saints. The Lord himself is present in our
midst. Lord, open the eyes of our hearts, so that we may become vigilant
and clear-sighted, in this way bringing you close to others as well!
Let us return to the
Christmas Gospel. It tells us that after listening to the Angel's
message, the shepherds said one to another: "'Let us go over to
Bethlehem' ... they went at once" (Lk 2:15 f.). "They made haste" is
literally what the Greek text says. What had been announced to them was
so important that they had to go immediately. In fact, what had been
said to them was utterly out of the ordinary. It changed the world. The
Saviour is born. The long-awaited Son of David has come into the world
in his own city. What could be more important? No doubt they were partly
driven by curiosity, but first and foremost it was their excitement at
the wonderful news that had been conveyed to them, of all people, to the
little ones, to the seemingly unimportant. They made haste
they went at once.
In our daily life,
unfortunately it is not like that. For most people, the things of God
are not given priority, they do not impose themselves on us directly.
And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what
seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities God is often more
or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to
think. The Gospel tells us: God is the highest priority. If anything in
our life deserves haste without delay, then, it is God's work alone.
The Rule of St Benedict
contains this teaching: "Place nothing at all before the work of God
(i.e. the divine office)". For monks, the Liturgy is the first priority.
Everything else comes later. In its essence, though, this saying applies
to everyone. God is important, by far the most important thing in our
lives. The shepherds teach us this priority. From them we should learn
not to be crushed by all the pressing matters in our daily lives. From
them we should learn the inner freedom to put other tasks in second
however important they may be
so as to make our way towards God, to allow him into our lives and into
our time. Time given to God and, in his name, to our neighbour is never
time lost. It is the time when we are most truly alive, when we live our
humanity to the full.
Some commentators point out
that the shepherds, the simple souls, were the first to come to Jesus in
the manger and to encounter the Redeemer of the world. The wise men from
the East, representing those with social standing and fame, arrived much
later. These commentators go on to say: this is quite natural. The
shepherds lived nearby. They only needed to "come over" (cf. Lk 2:15),
as we do when we go to visit our neighbours. The wise men, however,
lived far away. They had to undertake a long and arduous journey in
order to arrive in Bethlehem. And they needed guidance and direction.
Today too there are simple
and lowly souls who live very close to the Lord. They are, so to speak,
his neighbours and they can easily go to see him. But most of us in the
world today live far from Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who came to
dwell amongst us. We live our lives by philosophies, amid worldly
affairs and occupations that totally absorb us and are a great distance
from the manger.
In all kinds of ways, God
has to prod us and reach out to us again and again, so that we can
manage to escape from the muddle of our thoughts and activities and
discover the way that leads to him. But a path exists for all of us. The
Lord provides everyone with tailor-made signals. He calls each one of
us, so that we too can say: "Come on, 'let us go over' to Bethlehem
to the God who has come to meet us. Yes indeed, God has set out towards
us. Left to ourselves we could not reach him. The path is too much for
our strength. But God has come down. He comes towards us. He has
travelled the longer part of the journey. Now he invites us: come and
see how much I love you. Come and see that I am here. Transeamus
usque Bethlehem, the Latin Bible says. Let us go there! Let
us surpass ourselves! Let us journey towards God in all sorts of ways:
along our interior path towards him, but also along very concrete paths
the Liturgy of the Church, the service of our neighbour, in whom Christ
Let us once again listen
directly to the Gospel. The shepherds tell one another the reason why
they are setting off: "Let us see this thing that has happened".
Literally the Greek text says: "Let us see this Word that has occurred
there". Yes indeed, such is the radical newness of this night: the Word
can be seen. For it has become flesh. The God of whom no image may be
because any image would only diminish, or rather distort him
this God has himself become visible in the One who is his true image, as
St Paul puts it (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). In the figure of Jesus
Christ, in the whole of his life and ministry, in his dying and rising,
we can see the Word of God and hence the mystery of the living God
himself. This is what God is like.
The Angel had said to the
shepherds: "This will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in
swaddling clothes and lying in a manger" (Lk 2:12; cf. 2:16). God's
sign, the sign given to the shepherds and to us, is not an astonishing
miracle. God's sign is his humility. God's sign is that he makes himself
small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our
love. How we would prefer a different sign, an imposing, irresistible
sign of God's power and greatness! But his sign summons us to faith and
love, and thus it gives us hope: this is what God is like. He has power,
he is Goodness itself. He invites us to become like him.
Yes indeed, we become like
God if we allow ourselves to be shaped by this sign; if we ourselves
learn humility and hence true greatness; if we renounce violence and use
only the weapons of truth and love. Origen, taking up one of John the
Baptist's sayings, saw the essence of paganism expressed in the symbol
of stones: paganism is a lack of feeling, it means a heart of stone that
is incapable of loving and perceiving God's love. Origen says of the
pagans: "Lacking feeling and reason, they are transformed into stones
and wood" (in Lk 22:9).
Christ, though, wishes to give us a heart of flesh. When
we see him, the God who became a child, our hearts are opened. In the
Liturgy of the holy night, God comes to us as man, so that we might
become truly human. Let us listen once again to Origen: "Indeed, what
use would it be to you that Christ once came in the flesh if he did not
enter your soul? Let us pray that he may come to us each day, that we
may be able to say: I live, yet it is no longer I that live, but Christ
lives in me (Gal 2:20)" (in Lk 22:3).
Yes indeed, that is what we should pray for on this Holy
Night. Lord Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem, come to us! Enter within
me, within my soul. Transform me. Renew me. Change me, change us all
from stone and wood into living people, in whom your love is made
present and the world is transformed. Amen.