By JUSTIN McLELLAN, Catholic News Service | Published December 24, 2023
VATICAN CITY (CNS)–More than two millennia after the Holy Family was denied a room at the inn and Jesus was born in a manger, war once again renders his birthplace in the Holy Land inhospitable, Pope Francis said.
“Tonight, our hearts are in Bethlehem, where the Prince of Peace is once more rejected by the futile logic of war, by the clash of arms that even today prevents him from finding room in the world,” the pope said Dec. 24 during his homily for Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.
The nighttime liturgy began with preparatory prayers that included Old Testament readings telling of the Messiah’s coming, invocations of the Savior and the proclamation of his birth. Children, who entered the basilica as part of the procession dressed in traditional garments from different continents, placed flowers around a figurine of Jesus that rested in front of the basilica’s main altar.
In his lengthy homily, the pope reflected on Jesus’ birth occurring after Caesar decreed a census in which “the whole world should be enrolled,” as recounted in St. Luke’s Gospel.
The census, he said, “manifests the all-too-human thread that runs through history: the quest for worldly power and might, fame and glory, which measures everything in terms of success, results, numbers and figures, a world obsessed with achievement.”
By becoming human, however, Jesus chooses the way of “littleness.”
“He does not eliminate injustice from above by a show of power, but from below, by a show of love,” the pope said. “He does not burst on the scene with limitless power but descends to the narrow confines of our lives. He does not shun our frailties but makes them his own.”
At Christmas, Pope Francis encouraged Christians to shun the image of a mighty and lofty God, “because there is always a risk that we can celebrate Christmas while thinking of God in pagan terms, as a powerful potentate in the sky; a god linked to power, worldly success and the idolatry of consumerism.”
The pope, using a wheelchair, greeted representatives of other Christian denominations as he entered the basilica. Although the 87-year-old pope delivered his homily while seated, he showed no signs of difficulty while reading the long text and only stopped occasionally to clear his throat.
Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, was the main celebrant at the altar.
To God, “who changed history in the course of a census, you are not a number, but a face,” Pope Francis told the 6,500 people gathered inside the basilica, as well as those following the Mass on screens in St. Peter’s Square outside.
“If you look to your own heart and think of your own inadequacies and this world that is so judgmental and unforgiving, you may feel it difficult to celebrate this Christmas,” he said. “You may think things are going badly or feel dissatisfied with your limitations, failings and problems, for your sins.”
On Christmas, however, the pope encouraged Christians to “let Jesus take the initiative.”
“He became flesh; he is looking not for your achievements but for your open and trusting heart,” he said. “In him, you will rediscover who you truly are: a beloved son or daughter of God.
After the Mass, Pope Francis carried the figurine of the baby Jesus in his lap while an aide pushed him in his wheelchair toward the Nativity scene at the back of the basilica. Flanked by children on either side, the pope went to the crèche, and the Jesus figurine was placed in the manger. The pope stopped to greet the crowd as he left the basilica, led by the children who were jumping and clapping along the way.