ROME – Inaugurating the Christmas season, Pope Francis said Thursday that the coming of Jesus as a small and vulnerable child should not only assure humanity of God’s love, but it should also inspire people to care for the poor and needy in their midst.

Francis focused his homily for Christmas Eve Mass on a passage in the biblical book of Isaiah that says, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”

Reflecting on the image of a child and the “love and patience” they require, the pope said children can make people feel loved, but they “can also teach us how to love.”

“God was born a child in order to encourage us to care for others,” he said. “His quiet tears make us realize the uselessness of our many impatient outbursts. His disarming love reminds us that our time is not to be spent in feeling sorry for ourselves, but in comforting the tears of the suffering.”

Fundamentally, Jesus “came among us in poverty and need, to tell us that in serving the poor, we will show our love for him,” the pope said, and, quoting American poet Emily Dickinson, said that from Christmas night onwards, “God’s residence is next to mine, his furniture is love.”

Pope Francis spoke during an unusually early “midnight Mass” on Christmas Eve to mark the vigil of the birth of the infant Jesus on Christmas Day.

Usually celebrated around 10p.m. local time, the Mass this year was bumped up to 7:30p.m. due to restrictions in place to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Typically attended by thousands of people, the Mass was celebrated privately and livestreamed, with just 200 people attending, roughly, given social distancing requirements.

Italy is currently under a strict lockdown after the government earlier this month issued a decree declaring the entire nation a “red zone” from Dec. 24-Jan. 6, apart from a few days in between, to prevent a spike in coronavirus cases after the Christmas holiday. Unlike the spring quarantine, public liturgies have not been banned, but they must be over in time for faithful to be back home before the curfew.

Pope Francis’s decision to focus on the image of a child this year is not unusual, as his Christmas reflections tend to turn toward children.  Children and youth have been a constant preoccupation of this pope from the beginning, with frequent condemnations of the falling birth rate in Europe and throughout much of the rest of the western world.

In his homily Christmas Eve, Pope Francis said the birth of Jesus brings with it a newness “that enables us to be reborn each year and to find, in him, the strength needed to face every trial…Because his birth is for us – for me, for you, for everyone.”

“Are you tempted to feel you were a mistake? God tells you, ‘No, you are my child!’ Do you have a feeling of failure or inadequacy, the fear that you will never emerge from the dark tunnel of trial? God says to you, ‘Have courage, I am with you.’ He does this not in words, but by making himself a child with you and for you,” the pope said.

Insisting on the importance each person holds as a child of God, Francis said knowledge of this fact is the “incandescent core that gives warmth and meaning to our life.”

“Underlying all our strengths and weaknesses, stronger than all our past hurts and failures, or our fears and concerns about the future, there is this great truth: we are beloved sons and daughters,” he said.

Francis then pointed to the frequent ingratitude shown to God and the many injustices human beings inflict on one another, saying these experiences can arouse doubt as to whether God trusts humanity too much.

God, he said, “overestimates us,” but does so “because he is madly in love with us. He cannot help but love us…God knows that we become better only by accepting his unfailing love, an unchanging love that changes us.”

“Only the love of Jesus can transform our life, heal our deepest hurts and set us free from the vicious circles of disappointment, anger and constant complaint,” he said.

Noting that Jesus was born in the darkness of a dusty stable in Bethlehem, in a condition of poverty and rejection, Francis said he did this “To make us understand the immensity of his love for our human condition.”

“The Son of God was born an outcast, in order to tell us that every outcast is a child of God. He came into the world as each child comes into the world, weak and vulnerable, so that we can learn to accept our weaknesses with tender love. And to discover something important,” he said, adding, God loves to work wonders through our poverty.”

Noting that the word “Bethlehem” translates as “House of Bread,” the pope said that in order to truly live, humanity needs Jesus “like the bread we eat.”

“How often instead, in our hunger for entertainment, success and worldly pleasures, do we nourish life with food that does not satisfy and leaves us empty within,” he asked, adding, “In our endless desire for possessions, we run after any number of mangers filled with ephemeral things, and forget the manger of Bethlehem.”

“That manger, poor in everything yet rich in love, teaches that true nourishment in life comes from letting ourselves be loved by God and loving others in turn,” he said, and, pointing to Jesus as an example, noted that, “he does not say a word, but offers life. We, on the other hand, are full of words, but often have so little to say about goodness.”

Pope Francis closed his homily praying that Jesus would teach faithful how to serve others, saying, “You who did not leave me alone, help me to comfort your brothers and sisters, for, from this night forward, all are my brothers and sisters.”

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