Benedict XVI Homilies 8119
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
With this celebration we are entering the liturgical season of Advent. In the biblical Reading we have just heard, taken from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul invites us to prepare for "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1Th 5,23), with God's grace keeping ourselves blameless. The exact word Paul uses is "coming", in Latin adventus, from which the term "Advent" derives.
Let us reflect briefly on the meaning of this word, which can be rendered with "presence", "arrival" or "coming". In the language of the ancient world it was a technical term used to indicate the arrival of an official or the visit of the king or emperor to a province. However, it could also mean the coming of the divinity that emerges from concealment to manifest himself forcefully or that was celebrated as being present in worship. Christians used the word "advent" to express their relationship with Jesus Christ: Jesus is the King who entered this poor "province" called "earth" to pay everyone a visit; he makes all those who believe in him participate in his Coming, all who believe in his presence in the liturgical assembly. The essential meaning of the word adventus was: God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world, he has not deserted us. Even if we cannot see and touch him as we can tangible realities, he is here and comes to visit us in many ways.
The meaning of the expression "advent" therefore includes that of visitatio, which simply and specifically means "visit"; in this case it is a question of a visit from God: he enters my life and wishes to speak to me. In our daily lives we all experience having little time for the Lord and also little time for ourselves. We end by being absorbed in "doing". Is it not true that activities often absorb us and that society with its multiple interests monopolizes our attention? Is it not true that we devote a lot of time to entertainment and to various kinds of amusement? At times we get carried away. Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us. How often does God give us a glimpse of his love! To keep, as it were, an "interior journal" of this love would be a beautiful and salutary task for our life! Advent invites and stimulates us to contemplate the Lord present. Should not the certainty of his presence help us see the world with different eyes? Should it not help us to consider the whole of our life as a "visit", as a way in which he can come to us and become close to us in every situation?
Another fundamental element of Advent is expectation, an expectation which is at the same time hope. Advent impels us to understand the meaning of time and of history as a kairós, as a favourable opportunity for our salvation. Jesus illustrated this mysterious reality in many parables: in the story of the servants sent to await the return of their master; in the parable of the virgins who await the bridegroom; and in those of the sower and of the harvest. In their lives human beings are constantly waiting: when they are children they want to grow up, as adults they are striving for fulfilment and success and, as they advance in age, they look forward to the rest they deserve. However, the time comes when they find they have hoped too little if, over and above their profession or social position, there is nothing left to hope for. Hope marks humanity's journey but for Christians it is enlivened by a certainty: the Lord is present in the passage of our lives, he accompanies us and will one day also dry our tears. One day, not far off, everything will find its fulfilment in the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of justice and peace.
However there are many different ways of waiting. If time is not filled by a present endowed with meaning expectation risks becoming unbearable; if one expects something but at a given moment there is nothing, in other words if the present remains empty, every instant that passes appears extremely long and waiting becomes too heavy a burden because the future remains completely uncertain. On the other hand, when time is endowed with meaning and at every instant we perceive something specific and worthwhile, it is then that the joy of expectation makes the present more precious. Dear brothers and sisters, let us experience intensely the present in which we already receive the gifts of the Lord, let us live it focused on the future, a future charged with hope. In this manner Christian Advent becomes an opportunity to reawaken within ourselves the true meaning of waiting, returning to the heart of our faith which is the mystery of Christ, the Messiah who was expected for long centuries and was born in poverty, in Bethlehem. In coming among us, he brought us and continues to offer us the gift of his love and his salvation. Present among us, he speaks to us in many ways: in Sacred Scripture, in the liturgical year, in the saints, in the events of daily life, in the whole of the creation whose aspect changes according to whether Christ is behind it or whether he is obscured by the fog of an uncertain origin and an uncertain future. We in turn may speak to him, presenting to him the suffering that afflicts us, our impatience, the questions that well up in our hearts. We may be sure that he always listens to us! And if Jesus is present, there is no longer any time that lacks meaning or is empty. If he is present, we may continue to hope, even when others can no longer assure us of any support, even when the present becomes trying.
Dear friends, Advent is the season of the presence and expectation of the eternal. For this very reason, it is in a particular way a period of joy, an interiorized joy that no suffering can diminish. It is joy in the fact that God made himself a Child. This joy, invisibly present within us, encourages us to journey on with confidence. A model and support of this deep joy is the Virgin Mary, through whom we were given the Infant Jesus. May she, a faithful disciple of her Son, obtain for us the grace of living this liturgical season alert and hardworking, while we wait. Amen!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Lord's words that we have just heard in the Gospel passage challenge us as theologians or, perhaps better, invite us to make an examination of conscience. What is theology? What is our role as theologians? How can theology be done well? We have heard that our Lord praises the Father because he concealed the great mystery of the Son the Trinitarian mystery, the Christological mystery from the wise and the learned, from those who did not recognize him. Instead he revealed it to children, the nčpioi, to those who are not learned, who are not very cultured. It was to them that this great mystery was revealed.
With these words the Lord describes in simple terms an episode in his life that already began at the time of his birth, when the Magi from the East ask those who are competent the scribes, the exegetes where the birthplace of the Saviour, of the King of Israel, is located. The scribes know because they are great specialists; they can say immediately where the Messiah is born: in Bethlehem! But they do not feel it concerns them. For them it remains academic knowledge that does not affect their lives; they stay away. They can provide information, but they do not assimilate it and it has no part in the formation of their own lives.
Then throughout the Lord's public life we encounter the same thing. It is beyond the learned to comprehend that this man, a Galilean who is not educated, can truly be the Son of God. It is unacceptable to them that God the great, the one, the God of Heaven and earth could be present in this man. They know everything, they know all of the great prophecies; they even know Isaiah 53, but the mystery remains hidden to them. Instead it is revealed to the lowly, starting from Our Lady to the fishermen of the Sea of Galilee. They know, just as the Roman centurion beneath the Cross knew: this is the Son of God.
The basic events of Jesus' life do not only belong to the past but are also present in various ways to all generations. And thus also in our time in the past 200 years we see the same thing. There have been great scholars, great experts, great theologians, teachers of faith who have taught us many things. They have gone into the details of Sacred Scripture, of the history of salvation but have been unable to see the mystery itself, its central nucleus: that Jesus was really the Son of God, that at a given moment in history the Trinitarian God entered our history, as a man like us. The essential has remained hidden! One could easily mention the great names in the history of theology over the past 200 years from whom we have learned much; but the eyes of their hearts were not open to the mystery.
On the other hand, in our time there have also been "little ones" who have understood this mystery. Let us think of St Bernadette Soubirous; of St Thérčse of Lisieux, with her new interpretation of the Bible that is "non-scientific" but goes to the heart of Sacred Scripture; of the saints and blessed of our time: St Josephine Bakhita, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta and St Damien de Veuster. We could list so many!
But from all this the question arises: "Why should this be so?". Is Christianity the religion of the foolish, of people with no culture or who are uneducated? Is faith extinguished where reason is kindled? How can this be explained? Perhaps we should take another look at history. What Jesus said, what can be noted in all the centuries, is true. Nevertheless, there is a "type" of lowly person who is also learned. Our Lady stood beneath the Cross, the humble handmaid of the Lord and the great woman illumined by God. And John was there too, a fisherman from the Sea of Galilee. He is the John whom the Church was rightly to call "the theologian", for he was really able to see the mystery of God and proclaim it: eagled-eyed he entered into the inaccessible light of the divine mystery. So it was too that after his Resurrection, the Lord, on the road to Damascus, touches the heart of Saul, one of those learned people who cannot see. He himself, in his First Letter to Timothy, writes that he was "acting ignorantly" at that time, despite his knowledge. But the Risen One touches him: he is blinded. Yet at the same time, he truly gains sight; he begins to see. The great scholar becomes a "little one" and for this very reason perceives the folly of God as wisdom, a wisdom far greater than all human wisdom.
We could continue to interpret the holy story in this way. Just one more observation. These erudite terms, sofňi and sinetňi, in the First Reading are used in a different way. Here sofia and sěnesis are gifts of the Holy Spirit which descend upon the Messiah, upon Christ. What does this mean? It turns out that there is a dual use of reason and a dual way of being either wise or little. In the whole range of sciences, starting with the natural sciences, where a suitable method for the research of matter is universalized, there is a way of using reason that is autonomous, that places itself above God. God has no part in this method, so God does not exist. And, in the end, this is so in theology too: one fishes in the waters of Sacred Scripture using a net in which only fish of a certain size may be caught. Therefore a fish exceeding this size is too big for the net and hence cannot exist. It is in this way that the great mystery of Jesus, the Son made Man, is reduced to a historical Jesus: a tragic figure; a ghost, not of flesh and blood; a man who stays in the tomb, whose body is corrupt and who is truly dead. The method is able to "catch" certain fish but the great mystery eludes it, because the human being himself established the measure. He takes pride in this which is the same time great foolishness, because it renders absolute certain methods that are unsuitable for treating the great realities. He enters into this academic spirit that we have seen in the scribes, who answered the Magi Kings: it does not concern me. I remain closed into my own life that will not be affected. It is a specialization that sees all the details but can no longer discern the whole.
Then there is the other way of using reason, of being wise that of the man who recognizes who he is; he recognizes the proper measure and greatness of God, opening himself in humility to the newness of God's action. It is in this way, precisely by accepting his own smallness, making himself little as he really is, that he arrives at the truth. Thus reason too can express all its possibilities; it is not extinguished but rather grows and becomes greater. Sofěa and sěnesis in this context do not exclude one from the mystery that is real communion with the Lord, in whom reside wisdom and knowledge and their truth.
Let us now pray that the Lord will give us true humility. May he give us the grace of being little in order to be truly wise; may he illumine us, enable us to see his mystery in the joy of the Holy Spirit. May he help us to be true theologians who can proclaim his mystery because we are touched in the depths of our hearts, of our very existence. Amen.
With today's Liturgy we enter into the last stage of the Advent journey, which urges us to intensify our preparation, to celebrate the Lord's Birth with faith and joy, welcoming with deep wonder God who makes himself close to human beings, to each one of us.
The First Reading presents to us the aged Jacob who gathers his sons to give them his blessing. It is an event of great intensity and emotion. This blessing is like their seal of fidelity to the Covenant with God; but it is also a prophetic vision that looks ahead and indicates a mission. Jacob is a father who, on the paths of his own history that have not always been straight, achieves the joy of gathering his children round him and predicting the future of each one and of their descendents. Today, in particular, we heard the reference to the tribe of Judah whose royal power is exalted, represented by the lion, as well as the monarchy of David, represented by the sceptre, by the ruler's staff that alludes to the coming of the Messiah. Thus through this duel image, the mysterious future of the lion that becomes a lamb, of the king whose ruler's staff becomes the Cross, is the sign of true kingship. Jacob has gradually become aware of the primacy of God, he has realized that his journey is guided and sustained by the Lord's faithfulness, and cannot but answer with full adherence to God's Covenant and plan of salvation becoming in turn, together with his own descendants, a link in the divine plan.
The Gospel of Matthew presents to us the "genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Mt 1,1), underlining and further explaining God's fidelity to the promise that he puts into practice not only through human beings but with them, and, as for Jacob, sometimes in tortuous and unexpected ways. The awaited Messiah, the subject of the promise, is true God but also true man; the Son of God, but also the Son born of the Virgin Mary of Nazareth, the holy flesh of Abraham in whose descendants all the peoples of the earth would be blessed (cf. Gn 22,18). In this genealogy, in addition to Mary, four other women are recalled. They are not Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, or Rachel, that is, the great figures of the history of Israel. Instead, paradoxically they are four pagan women: Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Tamar, who seemingly "cloud" the purity of a genealogy. Yet, in these pagan women who appear at crucial points in the history of salvation, also appears the mystery of the church of the pagans, the universality of salvation. They are pagan women in whom appears the future, the universality of salvation. They are also sinful women, and thus the mystery of grace appears in them: it is not our works that redeem the world, but rather the Lord who gives us true life. They are sinful women, yes, in whom appears the greatness of the grace that we all need. Yet these women reveal an exemplary response to God's faithfulness, showing their faith in the God of Israel. And thus we see through the Church of the pagans, the mystery of grace, faith as a gift and as the way to communion with God. Matthew's genealogy, therefore, is not merely a list of generations: it is history brought about first by God, but with humanity's response. It is a genealogy of grace and faith: it is precisely on the absolute fidelity of God and on the sound faith of these women that the fulfilment of the promise made to Israel is founded.
Jacob's blessing corresponds felicitously with today's happy event of the 90th birthday of beloved Cardinal Spidlík. His long life and his unique journey of faith are proof of how God guides those who entrust themselves to him. However, he also followed a full itinerary of thought, always communicating with ardour and profound conviction that the centre of the whole Revelation is a Triune God, and that, consequently, the human being created in his image is essentially a mystery of freedom and love that is fulfilled in communion: God's way of being itself. This communion does not exist for itself but proceeds as the Christian East never tires of saying from the divine Persons who love each other freely. Freedom and love, constitutive elements of the person, cannot be grasped through rational categories, which is why it is impossible to understand the person except in the mystery of Christ, true God and true man, and in communion with him, who becomes the acceptance of the "divine humanity" also in our own existence. Faithful to this principle, in the course of the years Cardinal Spidlík has created a lively and, in many aspects, original theological vision, in which the Christian East and West converge organically in a mutual exchange of gifts. This vision is founded on life in the Spirit, the principle of knowledge: love, study, an initiation to spiritual memory, dialogue with human beings themselves: an indispensable criterion and its context: the ever-living Body of Christ which is his Church. Closely linked to this is the exercise of spiritual fatherhood which Cardinal Spidlík has always carried out and continues to carry out. Today we might say that gathered round him, in the celebration of the divine Mysteries is a small spiritual "descendant" of his, the "Centro Aletti", that wishes to gather his precious teaching, making it fruitful with new insights and new research, also through the depictions of art. In this context, it seems to me particularly beautiful to emphasize the link between theology and art that has flowed from his thought. Indeed, it has been 10 years since the time when my venerable and beloved Predecessor, the Servant of God John Paul II, dedicated this Redemptoris Mater Chapel, saying that "this work... is offered as an expression of that theology with two lungs from which the Church of the third millennium can draw new vitality". And the Pope continued, "The image of the Redemptoris Mater, standing out on the central wall, unveils to our eyes the mystery of the love of God, who became man in order to give us human beings the ability to become God's children... [This is the] message of salvation and the joy which Christ, born of Mary, brought to humanity" (John Paul II, Homily for the Dedication of "Redemptoris Mater" Chapel, 14 November 1999).
To you, dear Cardinal Spidlík, I wish you wholeheartedly an abundance of the Lord's graces, so that you may continue to enlighten with wisdom the Members of the "Centro Aletti" and all your spiritual children. As I continue the celebration of the Holy Mysteries, I entrust each one to the motherly protection of the Mother of the Redeemer, invoking from the divine Word who took our flesh, the light and peace proclaimed by the Angelus in Bethlehem.
Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
What is this wisdom born in Bethlehem? I would like to ask myself and all of you this question during this traditional pre-Christmas meeting with the University world of Rome. Today, instead of Holy Mass, we are celebrating Vespers, and to mark the felicitous coincidence with the beginning of the Christmas novena we will soon be singing the first of the "Greater Antiphons":
"O Wisdom from the mouth of the Most High,
you fill the whole world.
With strength and gentleness you order all things:
come to teach us the way of prudence"
(Liturgy of the Hours, Vespers of 17 December).
This wonderful invocation is addressed to "Wisdom", the central figure in the Books of Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach. These are in fact called the "Sapiential" Books, and in them the Christian tradition discerns a prefiguration of Christ. This invocation becomes truly stimulating and even provocative when we find ourselves before the Nativity scene that is, before the paradox of a Wisdom that "from the mouth of the Most High" comes to lie in swaddling cloths in a manger (cf. Lc 2,7 Lc 2,12 Lc 2,16).
Already we can anticipate the response to that initial question: the One born in Bethlehem is the Wisdom of God. St Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, uses the phrase: "a hidden wisdom of God" (1Co 2,7): in other words, a divine plan, which has long been kept hidden and that God himself has revealed in the history of salvation. In the fullness of time, this Wisdom took on a human Face, the Face of Jesus, who as recited in the Apostle's Creed "was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, is seated at the right hand of the God the Father Almighty; from hence he shall come to judge the living and the dead". The Christian paradox consists precisely in the identification of divine Wisdom, that is the eternal Logos, with the man Jesus of Nazareth and with his story. A solution to this paradox cannot be found if not in the word "Love", which naturally in this case is written with a capital "L", in reference to a Love that infinitely exceeds human and historical dimensions. Therefore, the Wisdom that we invoke this evening is the Son of God, the second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. It is the Word who, as we read in John's prologue, "was in the beginning with God", or rather, "was God": who with the Father and the Holy Spirit created all things and who "became flesh" to reveal the God whom no one can ever see (cf. Jn 1,2-3 Jn 1,14 Jn 1,18).
Dear friends, a Christian professor, or a young Christian student, carries within him a passionate love for this Wisdom! He reads everything in her light; he finds Wisdom's imprints in the elementary particles and in the verses of poets; in juridical codes and in the events of history; in works of art and in mathematic formulas. Without Wisdom not anything was made that was made (cf. Jn 1,3) and therefore in every created reality one can see Wisdom reflected, clearly visible in different ways and degrees. Everything understood by human intelligence can be grasped because in some sense and to a certain extent it participates in creative Wisdom. Herein lies, in the last analysis, the very potential of study, of research, of scientific dialogue in every field of knowledge.
At this point I cannot omit to reflect on something a bit disquieting but nevertheless useful for us here who belong to the academic world. Let us ask ourselves: who was present on Christmas night at the grotto in Bethlehem? Who welcomed Wisdom when he was born? Who hurried to see him, to recognize him and adore him? They were not doctors of law, scribes or sages. There were Mary and Joseph, and then the shepherds. What does this mean? Jesus was one day to say: "Yes, Father, for such was your gracious will" (Mt 11,26); you revealed your mystery to the little ones (cf. Mt 11,25). But then is there no use in studying? Or is it even harmful counterproductive in understanding the truth? The two thousand-year-old history of Christianity excludes the latter hypothesis, and suggests to us the correct one: studying entails deepening one's knowledge while maintaining a spirit similar to the "little ones", an ever humble and simple spirit, like that of Mary, the "Seat of Wisdom". How often have we been afraid to draw near to the Grotto in Bethlehem for fear that doing so would be an obstacle to our critical sense and to our "modernity"! Rather, in that Grotto, each of us can discover the truth about God and about humanity, about ourselves. In that Child, born of the Virgin, the two came together: mankind's longing for eternal life softened the heart of God, who was not ashamed to assume the human condition.
Dear friends, helping others to see the true Face of God is the first form of love, which for you takes on the role of intellectual charity. I was glad to learn that the diocesan university ministry's programme will have "The Eucharist and Intellectual Charity" as its theme this year: a demanding but appropriate choice. Indeed, in every Eucharistic Celebration God enters history in Jesus Christ in his Word and in his Body, giving himself in that love which enables us to serve humanity in its concrete existence. The project "One culture for the city", then, offers a promising proposal of the Christian presence in the cultural sphere. As I express the hope that your itinerary may be fruitful, I cannot fail to invite all the Athenaeums to be places of formation for authentic workers of intellectual charity. The future of society depends largely on them, above all in drawing up a new humanistic synthesis and of a new vision for the future (cf. Encyclical Caritas in Veritate ). I encourage all of the heads of academic institutions to continue to collaborate in the construction of a community in which all young people may develop into mature human beings who hold themselves responsible for the creation of a "civilization of love".
At the conclusion of this Celebration, the Australian university student delegation will consign the Icon of Mary Sedes Sapientiae to the delegation from Africa. Let us entrust to the Most Holy Virgin all university students on the African continent; following the Special Synod for Africa, the cooperative commitment has been developing in these months between the Athenaeums of Rome and those in Africa. I renew my encouragement of this new prospect of collaboration, and I hope it may lead to the creation and growth of cultural projects capable of promoting a truly integral human development. May this Christmas, dear friends, bring joy and hope to you, your families and to the entire university environment, in Rome and throughout the whole world.
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” (Lc 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 us. 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 dreamworld 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 Lc 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” (Lc 2,15f.). “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, 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 Saint 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 place – 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. The commentators go on to say: this is quite natural. The shepherds lived nearby. They only needed to “come over” (cf. Lc 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 awaits us.
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 made – 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 Saint Paul puts it (cf. 2Co 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” (Lc 2,12 cf. Lc 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 Lc 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 (Ga 2,20)” (in Lc 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.
Benedict XVI Homilies 8119