ROME – Ever the champion of those on the peripheries, Pope Francis on Christmas Eve spoke out to those who might feel marginalized and lacking in holiday cheer, insisting that Christmas is an assurance of God’s love for each person despite one’s mistakes and failures.

He also appeared to offer a direct message to those who might be struggling with the failures and scandals of the Church, saying at various points during his Dec. 24 homily that there are no excuses, including the Church’s actions, for not letting oneself receive God’s love.

“May we not wait for our neighbors to be good before we do good to them, for the Church to be perfect before we love her, for others to respect us before we serve them. Let us begin with ourselves,” he said, saying that to be holy does not consist of lofty actions, but of choosing to accept and preserve the love and grace offered by God through the infant Jesus.

Reflecting on the image of a light appearing in the darkness described in the day’s biblical readings, the pope in his Mass said this light, while seemingly mysterious, is “divine love, the love that changes lives, renews history, liberates from evil, fills hearts with peace and joy.”

While a worldly mindset often tends to focus on giving in order to get, even at Christmastime, Jesus came freely as a tiny, vulnerable child “so that we might love him,” the pope said, adding that “His love is non-negotiable: we did nothing to deserve it and we will never be able to repay it.”

On the eve of Jesus’ birth, he said, “we realize that, when we failed to measure up, God became small for our sake; while we were going about our own business, he came into our midst. Christmas reminds us that God continues to love us all, even the worst of us.”

Speaking to pilgrims and faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica, where the Mass was celebrated, Francis said that neither personal struggles nor the poor actions of the Church are an excuse for not letting in God’s love.

In contemplating the Christ child, “we have no further excuse for not letting ourselves be loved by him,” he said, adding that “Whatever goes wrong in our lives, whatever doesn’t work in the Church, whatever problems there are in the world, will no longer serve as an excuse.”

“It will become secondary, for faced with Jesus’ extravagant love, a love of utter meekness and closeness, we have no excuse,” he said, noting that people often live without a sense of gratitude, but Christmas is a time to “say thank you” for life and for love.

Noting that the shepherds who came to see Jesus shortly after his birth were poor and typically considered to be on the margins of society, Francis insisted that they “were certainly not saints,” yet God drew them to his newborn son.

“And just as God called the shepherds, so too he calls us, for he loves us,” he said, adding that “For better or worse, in sickness and in health, whether happy or sad, in his eyes we are beautiful, not for what we do but for what we are.”

“Let us receive the gift that is Jesus, in order then to become a gift like Jesus. To become a gift is to give meaning to life. And it is the best way to change the world,” he said, adding that “we change, the Church changes, history changes, once we stop trying to change others but try to change ourselves and to make of our life a gift.”

Pointing to Jesus, Francis said he did not change history with words, but with the gift of his life, which was offered freely without waiting for humanity to be “good” before he came down to earth.

“Dear brother, dear sister, if your hands seem empty, if you think your heart is poor in love, this night is for you,” he said. “The grace of God has appeared, to shine forth in your life. Accept it and the light of Christmas will shine forth in you.”

Follow Elise Harris on Twitter: @eharris_it

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