ROME – In an era in which Christmas is often criticized for fostering a consumerist frenzy, Pope Francis on Christmas Eve insisted that simplicity and solidarity with the poor are actually the true meaning of the season.
Referring to the biblical moment when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden, Francis in his Christmas Eve homily said this is the moment when “mankind became greedy and voracious.”
“In our day, for many people, life’s meaning is found in possessing, in having an excess of material objects. An insatiable greed marks all human history, even today, when, paradoxically, a few dine luxuriantly while all too many go without the daily bread needed to survive,” he said.
However, noting how the Hebrew and Aramaic meaning for Bethlehem, the city of Christ’s birth, is “house of bread,” Francis said the birth of Jesus in a stable on the fringes of the town “is the turning point that alters the course of history.”
“There God, in the house of bread, is born in a manger,” he said, explaining that even in his birth Christ offers himself as food for humanity. “He does not take but gives us to eat; he does not give us a mere thing, but his very self,” he said, adding that in Bethlehem, “we discover that God does not take life, but gives it.”
Francis spoke during his Dec. 24 Mass for Christmas Eve, marking the first of his Christmas season liturgies, celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica.
In his homily, the pope said that while God knows humanity needs food to live, he is also aware that “the nourishments of this world do not satisfy the heart.” By incarnating himself as a small child laid in a manger, Jesus allows mankind, through his flesh, to be reborn in love, breaking “the spiral of grasping and greed.”
“Jesus brings us back home, so that we can become God’s family, brothers and sisters to our neighbors,” he said, adding that in standing before the manger, “we understand that the food of life is not material riches but love, not gluttony but charity, not ostentation but simplicity.”
As humanity contemplates the birth of Christ at Christmas, Francis invited Catholics to reflect on what “foods” they nourish themselves with, and whether this nourishment comes from God, or whether it is a superficial substitute from the “bread of life” that only God can provide.
“What is the bread of my life, what is it that I cannot do without? Is it the Lord, or something else?” he asked, and, faced with the “odor of simplicity” of the Christ Child laying in a manger, questioned Mass-goers on whether they really need material objects and “complicated recipes” to live a good life.
Noting how Mary, Joseph and the shepherds all arrived to Bethlehem after a long trip, Francis said Jesus himself emerges as the “bread for the journey” that sustains mankind on their own path of life.
“He does not like long, drawn-out meals, but bids us rise quickly from table in order to serve, like bread broken for others,” the pope said, and questioned Catholics on the extent to which they share their own food and goods with others.
Francis then pointed to how Bethlehem is also referred to as the “city of David,” in reference to the biblical figure of King David, an ancestor of Jesus.
Noting how King David was chosen to be the “shepherd of his people,” Francis noted how the shepherds who visit the infant Jesus in the Gospel were among the first to see the face of the Christ-child after his birth.
After an angel appeared to them announcing Christ’s birth, the shepherds were “filled with fear,” he said, noting how Jesus in the Gospels frequently urges his disciples to “be not afraid.”
“It seems that God is constantly repeating it as he seeks us out. Because we, from the beginning, because of our sin, have been afraid of God,” the pope said, saying that Adam, after disobeying God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, hid from God out of fear.
“Bethlehem is the remedy for this fear,” Francis said, because “despite man’s repeated ‘no,’ God constantly says ‘yes.’ He will always be God-with-us. And lest his presence inspire fear, he makes himself a tender child.”
Jesus’ birth, he said, is a concrete assurance from God that “never again will anyone be alone and abandoned; we have a Shepherd who conquers our every fear and loves us all, without exception.”
Francis also pointed to the importance of being watchful, noting that the shepherds were able to hear the angel’s announcement of Christ’s birth because they were not sleeping, but were alert and watchful, which is something that is asked of each person even today.
“Our life can be marked by waiting, which amid the gloom of our problems hopes in the Lord and yearns for his coming; then we will receive his life,” he said, explaining that life can also be marked by a sense of wanting in which all that matters are one’s own strengths and abilities.
If the latter is the case, “our heart then remains barred to God’s light,” he said, adding that God “loves to be awaited, and we cannot await him lying on a couch, sleeping.” Rather, mankind must be like the shepherds, who “went in haste” to meet Jesus as soon as they heard the angel’s greeting.
By leaving their flocks unattended, the shepherds took a risk for God, he said, and after seeing the infant Jesus, they go out and proclaim his birth to everyone they meet, despite their humble origins.
Similar to the shepherds, each person is invited to go to Bethlehem to encounter Christ, Francis said, adding that even today, “the road is uphill: the heights of our selfishness need to be surmounted, and we must not lose our footing or slide into worldliness and consumerism.”
Closing in a prayer, the pope said he wants to go to Bethlehem because “there you await me. I want to realize that you, lying in a manger, are the bread of my life. I need the tender fragrance of your love so that I, in turn, can be bread broken for the world. Take me upon your shoulders, Good Shepherd; loved by you, I will be able to love my brothers and sisters and to take them by the hand.”
On Christmas day Francis will give his traditional Urbi et Orbi (“to the city and the world”) blessing, and on Dec. 26, the feast of Saint Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, he’ll lead pilgrims in the traditional Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square.
On New Year’s Eve he’ll pray Vespers in St. Peter’s basilica and will pop out to visit the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, this year made entirely out of sand. On Jan. 1, he will celebrate Mass for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and his next major liturgical event will be the Jan. 6 Mass for the Epiphany.
Francis will close out the holidays with a speech to the diplomatic corps Jan. 7, and a Jan. 13 Mass for the Baptism of the Lord on Jan. 13, which he will celebrate in the Sistine chapel and during which he will baptize several infants.