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ROME – For believers, Christmas is traditionally a time of joy and celebration. Yet throughout his holiday liturgies this year, Pope Francis stressed it’s also a time for a reckoning, leading to conversion.
As usual, the pope participated in a vigil Mass on Christmas Eve, delivered his traditional Urbi et Orbi address and blessing on Christmas day, and led faithful in praying the Angelus the day after Christmas, which, on the liturgical calendar, is the feast of St. Stephen.
As he did last year due to ongoing knee pain, Francis did not personally celebrate the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, which was presided over by Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, while the pontiff sat off to the side, giving the homily and joining in key moments of the liturgy.
That night, Francis warned that two thousand years after Jesus’s birth, Christmas is often spent “amid decorations and gifts” and “so much consumerism” that there is a danger of forgetting the “real meaning” of Christmas.
Christmas, he said, is a time of closeness, poverty and concreteness, which is illustrated in the Gospel narratives.
The pope focused on the image of the manger into which Jesus was laid after his birth. As a feeding trough, the manger can symbolize man’s greed and hunger for wealth and power, willing to consume “even their neighbors, their brothers and sisters,” he said.
“How many wars have we seen! And in how many places, even today, are human dignity and freedom treated with contempt!” he said, noting that the first victims of greed and indifference are the poor and vulnerable.
To this end, he pointed to the many children “devoured by war, poverty and injustice,” saying the dark places of “rejection and refusal” are the precise places where the child Jesus seeks to enter.
Jesus, he said, “comes to touch our hearts and to tell us that love alone is the power that changes the course of history. He does not remain distant and mighty, but draws near to us in humility.”
In this sense, the poverty of the manger shows “where the true riches in life are to be found: not in money and power, but in relationships and persons,” he said, urging faithful to draw near to Jesus and stand by him, “namely in the poor mangers of our world…that is where he is present.”
In his traditional Urbi et Orbi address on Christmas day, Pope Francis made his usual appeal for peace throughout the world, which, this year, is marred by conflict, as millions live in the shadow of the war in Ukraine.
The Child Jesus “gives life its meaning” and is “the light that brightens our path,” he said, voicing hope that Christians during the festive season can “overcome our spiritual drowsiness and the shallow holiday glitter that makes us forget the One whose birth we are celebrating.”
He pointed to the war in Ukraine, which reached the 10-month mark on Christmas Eve, and prayed that God would inspire Christians “to offer concrete gestures of solidarity to assist all those who are suffering” and that he would “enlighten the minds of those who have the power to silence the thunder of weapons and put an immediate end to this senseless war!”
“Tragically, we prefer to heed other counsels, dictated by worldly ways of thinking. Yet who is listening to the voice of the Child?” he asked.
Many other parts of the world are also experiencing a “famine of peace,” such as Syria, Yemen, and the Holy Land, “where in recent months violence and confrontations have increased, bringing death and injury in their wake,” he said.
Pope Francis also pointed to the ongoing political and social crisis in Lebanon, as well as ongoing unrest in Yemen, Myanmar, and Iran, where human rights protests in recent weeks have spiraled into violent clashes between resistance and government forces.
He prayed that the light of Christ at Christmas would also inspire citizens and political leaders in the Americas “to attempt to calm the political and social tensions experienced by various countries,” specifically mentioning Haiti.
With violence raging in countries throughout the world, the pope lamented the countless children who are starving “while huge amounts of food daily go to waste and resources are being spent on weapons.”
Referring to the global grain shortage caused by the Russia-Ukraine war, he said the conflict has exacerbated the problem of global hunger, “putting entire peoples at risk of famine,” especially those in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa.
“We know that every war causes hunger and exploits food as a weapon, hindering its distribution to people already suffering,” he said, urging Christians at Christmas to “learn from the Prince of Peace and, starting with those who hold political responsibilities, commit ourselves to making food solely an instrument of peace.”
On Monday, Pope Francis held a special Angelus address marking the feast of Saint Stephen, considered the church’s first martyr.
In his address, the pope noted that the seasonal Christmas liturgies are punctuated with the feast of several “dramatic” figures of martyrs and saints, such as St. Stephen and the Holy Innocents, who were the children slaughtered by King Herod in his attempt to prevent Jesus from removing him from the throne.
The reason these feasts are celebrated when they are, Francis said, is to serve as a reminder that Christmas “is not the fairytale of the birth of a king, but the coming of the Savior, who frees us from evil by taking upon himself our evil: selfishness, sin, death.”
Martyrs are those “most similar” to Jesus, he said, and urged Christians to follow in St. Stephen’s example, saying he had spent his life speaking about Jesus and in charitable service to the needy long before his violent death.
As Christians, “we can improve our witness through charity towards our brothers and sisters, fidelity to the Word of God, and forgiveness,” he said, saying “It is forgiveness that tells whether we truly practice charity towards others, and if we live the Word of God.”
He stressed the importance of reconciliation, urging faithful to work on their ability to forgive as they spend time with relatives, including some “with whom we have not got along, who have hurt us, with whom we have never patched up our relationship.”
Pope Francis closed with another appeal for peace in Ukraine, asking that God would bring peace “to that people tormented by war, peace for the dear and martyred Ukraine.”
His next round of holiday festivities includes a special vespers service on New Year’s Eve inside St. Peter’s Basilica, and Mass for the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, on New Year’s Day.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen