Merry Christmas everyone and enjoy the season. Here’s a wonderful reflection by Pope Benedict on St. Francis’ spirituality of the Incarnation and especially the Christmas Crèche:
Dear brothers and sisters, with the Christmas novena, which we are celebrating in these days, the Church is inviting us to live in an intense and profound way the preparation for the Nativity of the Savior, which is now imminent. The desire that we all hold in our hearts is that the upcoming feast of Christmas may give us, in the midst of the frenetic activity of our days, the serene and profound joy that allows us to touch with our hands the goodness of our God, and fills us with new courage.
In order to understand better the significance of the Nativity of the Lord, I would like to make some brief remarks on the historical origin of this solemnity. In fact, the Church’s liturgical year did not initially develop beginning from the birth of Christ, but from faith in his resurrection. For this reason, the most ancient feast of Christianity is not Christmas, it is Easter; the resurrection of Christ is the foundation of the Christian faith, it is at the basis of the proclamation of the Gospel, and gives birth to the Church. Therefore being Christian means living in a Paschal manner, participating in the dynamism that arises from baptism and leads us to die to sin in order to live with God (cf. Romans 6:4).
The first to state clearly that Jesus was born on December 25 was Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the book of the prophet Daniel, written about the year 204. Some exegetes later noted that the feast of the dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem, instituted by Judas Maccabeus in 164 B.C., was celebrated on that day. The coinciding of these dates would therefore mean that with Jesus, who appeared as the light of God in the darkness, there is the true realization of the consecration of the Temple, the Advent of God upon this earth.
The feast of Christmas took on definitive form in Christianity in the fourth century, when it replaced the Roman feast of the “Sol Invictus,” the invincible sun; this highlighted the fact that the birth of Christ is the victory of the true light over the darkness of evil and sin.
However, the special and intense spiritual atmosphere that surrounds Christmas developed in the Middle Ages, thanks to St. Francis of Assisi, who was deeply in love with the man Jesus, with God-with-us. His first biographer, Thomas of Celano, recounts in the book “Second Life” that Saint Francis “above all of the other solemnities celebrated with indescribable fervor the Nativity of the Child Jesus, and called a ‘feast of feasts’ the day on which God, having become a little infant, suckled at a human breast” (Fonti Francescane, 199, p. 492).
This special devotion to the mystery of the incarnation gave rise to the famous celebration of Christmas in Greccio. St. Francis probably got his inspiration for this from his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and from the crèche at Saint Mary Major in Rome. What drove the Little Poor Man of Assisi was the desire to experience in a concrete, living, and present way the greatness of the event of the birth of the Child Jesus, and to communicate its joy to everyone.
In his first biography, Thomas of Celano talks about the night of the crèche in Greccio in a living and touching way, making a decisive contribution to the spread of the most beautiful Christmas tradition, that of the crèche. Christmas Eve in Greccio, in fact, restored to Christianity the intensity and beauty of the feast of Christmas, and taught the people of God to grasp its most authentic message, its unique warmth, and to love and adore the humanity of Christ.
This unique approach to Christmas brought a new dimension to the Christian faith. Easter had focused attention on the power of God who conquers death, inaugurates the new life, and teaches hope in the world to come. St. Francis and his crèche highlighted the defenseless love of God, his humility and kindness, which in the incarnation of the Word are manifested to man in order to teach a new way of living and loving.
Celano recounts that, on that Christmas Eve, Francis was granted the grace of a wonderful vision. He saw lying motionless in the manger a little baby, who was awakened from his sleep by the presence of Francis. And he adds: “Nor was this vision at odds with the facts, because, through the work of his grace acting by means of his holy servant Francis, the Child Jesus was reawakened in the hearts of many who had forgotten him, and was profoundly impressed in their loving memory” (Vita prima, Fonti Francescane, 86, p. 307).
This backdrop describes with great precision how much Francis’ living faith in and love for the humanity of Christ transmitted to the Christian feast of Christmas: the discovery that God reveals himself in the tender members of the Child Jesus. Thanks to St. Francis, the Christian people have been able to perceive that at Christmas, God truly became “Emmanuel,” God-with-us, who is not separated from us by any barrier or distance. In that Child, God became so close to each one of us, so near, that we are able to talk to him as a friend and establish a familiar relationship of profound affection with him, as we do with a newborn.
In that Child, in fact, is manifested God-Love: God comes without weapons, without power, because he does not intend to conquer, so to speak, from the outside, but instead intends to be welcomed by man in freedom; God becomes a defenseless Child in order to overcome man’s arrogance, violence, and desire for possession. In Jesus, God has taken on this poor and unarmed condition in order to conquer us 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; the divine dignity is indicated with a term that extends the reference to the humble condition of the manger in Bethlehem, although it still corresponds in a unique way to his divinity, which is the divinity of the “Son.”
Moreover, his condition as a Child 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: “If you do not convert and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). Those who have not understood the mystery of Christmas have not understood the decisive element of Christian existence. Those who do not welcome Jesus with the heart of a child cannot enter the kingdom of heaven: this is what Francis wanted to remind the Christianity of this time and of all times, up until today.
Let us pray to the Father that he grant our hearts that simplicity which recognizes the Child as Lord, just as Francis did in Greccio. Then we too may experience what Thomas of Celano – referring to the experience of the shepherds on Christmas Eve (cf. Luke 2:20) – recounts about those who were present at the event in Greccio: “Everyone went home full of inexpressible joy” (Vita prima, Fonti Francescane, 86, p. 479).
This is the wish that I extend with affection to all of you, to your families and loved ones. Merry Christmas to you all!
(Catechesis given by Benedict XVI at the general audience on Wednesday, December 23, 2009).