Published below is a translation of the address that Pope Benedict gave yesterday inside the Paul VI Audience Hall. This week, he reflected on the final days of the Church's celebration of Christmas.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In this Christmas season we focus once again on the great mystery of God who came down from Heaven to enter into our flesh. In Jesus, God became incarnate, he became man like us, and thus opened for us the door to his Heaven, to full communion with Him.
In recent days, the term "incarnation" of God has resounded several times in our churches, to express the reality we celebrate on Christmas: the Son of God became man, as we say in the Creed. But what is the meaning of this word that is central to the Christian faith? Incarnation: it is derived from the Latin "incarnatio." St. Ignatius of Antioch and, especially, St. Irenaeus have used this term when reflecting on the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John, in particular in regard to the expression "The Word became flesh" (Jn 1:14). Here the word "flesh" indicates man in his entirety, under the aspect of his transience and temporality, his poverty and contingency. This is to say that the salvation wrought by God made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth touches man in his concrete reality and in whatever situation he finds himself. God has taken on the human condition to heal it from all that separates us from Him, to allow us to call him, in his only begotten Son, by the name of "Abbá, Father" and to be truly sons of God. St. Irenaeus says, "This is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God "(Adversus haereses, 3,19,1: PG 7.939; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 460).
"The Word became flesh" is one of those truths we have grown so accustomed to that the greatness of the event that it expresses hardly affects us any more. And indeed, in this Christmas season, in which this expression often recurs in the liturgy, sometimes one is more concerned about outward appearances, the "colors" of the festivity, than about the heart of the great Christian novelty we celebrate: something absolutely unthinkable, that only God could carry out and into which we can only enter by faith. The Logos, which is with God, the Logos who is God (cf. Jn 1:1), the Creator of the world, by which all things were made (cf. 1:3), which has accompanied men throughout history with his light (cf. 1:4-5; 1:9), became flesh and made his dwelling among us, he became one of us (cf. 1:14). The Second Vatican Council affirms: "The Son of God ... worked with human hands, He thought with a human mind, acted by human choice, and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, He has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin"(Const. Gaudium et Spes, 22). It is important then to recover wonder before the mystery, to allow ourselves to be enveloped by the magnitude of this event. God, the true God, the Creator of all, has walked our streets as a man, entering the time of man, to communicate to us his own life (cf. 1 Jn 1:1-4). And it did not do it with the splendor of a sovereign, who subjects the world with his power, but with the humility of a child.
I would like to underline a second element. On Christmas we usually exchange a few gifts with the people closest to us. Sometimes it may be an act done out of convention, but generally it expresses affection, is a sign of love and esteem. In the prayer over the offerings of the Mass at dawn on the Solemnity of Christmas the Church prays: "Accept, O Lord, our offering in this night of light, and by this mysterious exchange of gifts transform us in Christ your Son, who raised man next to you in glory." The thought of giving is at the heart of the liturgy and brings to our consciousness the original gift of Christmas: on that holy night God, becoming flesh, has wanted to become a gift for men, he has given himself up for us, God gave his only Son as a gift for us,he assumed our humanity to give us his divinity. This is the great gift. Even in our giving it is not important whether a gift is expensive or not; whoever does not manage to donate a little of himself, always gives too little; indeed, sometimes we try to substitute our hearts and the commitment of donating ourselves with money, with material things.
The mystery of the Incarnation means that God hasn't done so: he hasn't given something, but has given himself in his only-begotten Son. Here we find the model of our giving, so that our relationships, especially the most important ones, may be guided by generosity and love.
I would like to offer a third reflection: the fact of the Incarnation, of God becoming a man like us, shows us the unprecedented realism of divine love. The action of God, in fact, is not limited to words, indeed we might say that He is not content to speak, but immerses himself in our history and takes on the fatigue and weight of human life. The Son of God truly became man, he was born of the Virgin Mary, in a specific time and place, in Bethlehem during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, under the Governor Quirinius (Lk 2:1-2); he grew up in a family, he had friends, he formed a group of disciples, he instructed the Apostles to continue his mission, he completed the course of his earthly life on the cross. This mode of action by God is a powerful stimulus to question ourselves about the realism of our faith, which should not be limited to the sphere of feelings and emotions, but must enter into the concrete reality of our existence, it must touch our everyday life and direct it also in a practical way. God did not stop at words, but showed us how to live, sharing our own experience, except sin. The Catechism of St. Pius X, which some of us have studied as children, with its simplicity, to the question: "What should we do to live according to God?", gives this answer: "To live according to God we should believe the truth revealed by Him and keep His commandments with the help of his grace, which is obtained by the sacraments and prayer." Faith has a fundamental aspect which affects not only the mind and the heart, but all our lives.
I propose one final element for your consideration. St. John says that the Word, the Word was with God from the beginning, and that all things were made through the Word, and nothing that exists was made without Him (cf. Jn 1:1-3). The Evangelist clearly alludes to the story of creation that is found in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, and re-reads them in the light of Christ. This is a fundamental criterion in the Christian reading of the Bible: the Old and New Testaments should always be read together and from New, the deepest sense also of the Old is revealed. That same Word, that exists with God from always, which is God Himself and by means of whom and in sight of whom all things were created (cf. Col 1:16-17), became man: the eternal and infinite God immersed himself in human finitude, in his creature, to lead man and the whole of creation to Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms: "The first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the new creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first creation" (no. 349).
The Fathers of the Church have compared Jesus to Adam, so much so as to define him the "second Adam" or the final Adam, the perfect image of God. With the Incarnation of the Son of God a new creation occurs, which gives the complete answer to the question "Who is man?". Only in Jesus is God's plan for the human being fully revealed: He is the definitive man according to God. The Second Vatican Council strongly reiterates this: "The truth is, that only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light ... Christ, the new Adam, fully reveals man to himself and makes his supreme calling clear"(Const. Gaudium et Spes, 22; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 359). In that child, the Son of God contemplated in Christmas, we can recognize not only the true face of God, but also that of the human being; and only by opening ourselves to the action of his grace and trying every day to follow Him, do we realize the design of God for us.
Dear friends, in this period we meditate on the great and wonderful richness of the Mystery of the Incarnation, to allow the Lord to enlighten us and transform us more and more to the image of his Son made man for us. Thank you!
Credit: CNS photo