Homily Midnight Mass Christmas 2021
Bethlehem, December 24, 2021
Dearest brothers and sisters,
Mr. Prime Minister,
Excellencies and distinguished guests,
May the Lord give you peace!
The celebration of Christmas is certainly more joyful this year than last. Today the faithful fill our church and the city is celebrating. Compared to last year's Christmas, the participation is much greater and this is an encouraging sign. Of course, an important part is still missing for the joy to be complete. We are missing the pilgrims, who for the second year in a row could not be with us, due to the current health emergency, which is taking longer than we could have imagined. We pray for them and at the same time ask for their prayers, so that all this may end soon and that the city of Bethlehem may once again be full of pilgrims, as is its characteristic. We also pray that joy may return to the many families who support themselves through pilgrimages and who, because of this pandemic, have been out of work for more than two years now and live in an increasingly difficult situation. We hope that with a joint action of politics, Church and tour operators, local and international, we can find safe ways to resume this activity, despite the pandemic. This is really necessary!
I wish to thank the Lord and all those who made it possible for some members of our Christian community from Gaza to reach Bethlehem and to be with us today. This year it was simpler to obtain for them the possibility to celebrate with us. It is a small, but important, positive sign for which I am grateful.
Let us now come to Christmas and the celebration of this wonderful mystery.
The birth of Jesus Christ in the grotto of Bethlehem changed the history of humanity. Today it also has the power to change our lives and to open new perspectives even where it seems that the darkness is too strong. How is this possible?
To experience Christmas it is necessary to hear the voice of God.
To encounter Jesus, today as then, we must allow ourselves to be guided by the voice of his witnesses, of his messengers. In fact, there are many voices in the Gospel that speak of Jesus, but not all of them lead to Him. We need to recognize the right voice so that we may reach the joy of Christmas.
Mary of Nazareth heard the voice of the angel and his announcement and welcomed Jesus (Lk 1:26-38). After Mary, Joseph (Mt 1:20-22) also obeyed the voice of the angel, overcoming his own fears: they are the ones who made the work of salvation possible. The shepherds (Lk 2:8) are also witnesses who welcomed the angels' announcement "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men, whom he loves" (Lk 2:14); likewise the Magi, Simeon and Anna and many others.
In the Gospel story, however, we also meet characters such as Herod, who was frightened by the news of the birth of a new King (Mt 2:2-3). We hear about the wise men of Jerusalem who knew the prophecies about Jesus, but did not know how to accept them (Mt 2:4-5). We have the tragedy of the innocents killed... in short, we also have contrary examples, who reject the voice of the witnesses and ultimately refuse to accept Jesus. We must therefore be able to discern which voices to listen to, if we really want to recognize the "Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk 2:11).
In order to find Jesus, it is necessary to trust someone who knows Him and who will help us to approach Him. Listening to a credible witness also allows us to see in a new way, opening us to a different reading of reality. To be able to listen, we need a heart of flesh, a heart that is docile, that allows itself to be wounded by the other. We need a heart that knows how to love.
Today we too, like Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi, are gathered at the grotto in Bethlehem to celebrate the Christmas of Jesus Christ our Lord and Teacher.
I would like us now to ask ourselves what are the voices that occupy or liberate our lives, the voices that direct our thinking and acting, both as individuals and as a civil society. What words resonate in the hearts of our young people, in our families, within our homes? In this time of health emergency and prolonged political emergency, many different voices are heard in families: some undermine confidence, take away hope, extinguish love; others, however, are more encouraging, capable of vision and future. What witnesses are we listening to today? In this last year, in the context of the old and new crises that have challenged us, which voice have we followed?
This is not a rhetorical question. In this Babylon of announcements, declarations and modern prophecies, arriving through the many media, we need to seek and find the voice that leads us to Jesus and to salvation, that opens hearts to hope. In our own lives we need trustworthy witnesses who help us find the path that leads to Bethlehem, who encourage us to see the future with confidence, who know how to see and allow us to see the good that is growing, and not only the evil and the pain, which are also present, but which cannot be our only criterion for evaluating the current situation. It would be a lack of faith for us to limit ourselves to denouncing evil and not commit ourselves, instead, to planning and building with hope a future of good. Faith and hope cannot be separated: they are necessary to each other. Let us ask ourselves if we are among those who are paralyzed by fear, or if have we instead left room for the voice of the Spirit, who always opens our being to new horizons. Which witnesses have we given our trust to? Because, after all, this is what we need: to rebuild trust among us, trust in the future, ours and our children's, trust in the possibility of a change for the better, both in civil life and in the Church.
First among all witnesses, in fact, is the Church. We must first of all ask her, and look at our reality through her, that is, through the eyes of those who keep and bear witness to the Gift of salvation in the world.
What voices, then, have resounded in our diocese of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem? Which ones do we wish to make resound in our hearts? Are they the voices of the hope that is born in Bethlehem? Is it the voice of an insight so powerful that it can see beyond the present evil and make us recognize God's work in our midst?
I think first of all of the voice that resounded in Cyprus, the voice of Pope Francis during his visit to this part of our diocese. The island of Cyprus, a country also divided by walls, due to political and religious conflicts, marked by decades-long wounds, gathers in itself the contradictions that agitate the Mediterranean, where power struggles and enormous interests for energy sources are concentrated, but also where we witness the tragedy of thousands of refugees, fleeing wars and misery, and who find refuge on the island while remaining without prospects for their future. Pope Francis reminded us of the meaning of patience, which does not mean remaining inert, but being available to the unpredictable action of the Holy Spirit, using our time to appreciate listening, and welcoming those who are not like us. Listening - says Pope Francis - means making space for the other; in doing so, we welcome Jesus. This is an important indication of method for our entire Church of Jerusalem, initiated in the synodal journey desired by the Pope himself, and which has as its founding theme precisely listening to and knowing the other.
In Jordan, where this year marks the centenary of the founding of the Hashemite Kingdom, there has been no shortage of voices of concern about the difficult economic situation, aggravated by the pandemic and regional conflicts that have brought millions of new refugees to the Kingdom. And yet, this State, though marked by so many difficulties, still teaches first world countries what solidarity and welcome are. In these times of political and religious sectarianism, moreover, Jordan is not afraid to engage in religious and political dialogue, and plans for its future. May it be a Christmas of hope and comfort also for our Jordanian Church, therefore, so that she may continue to listen to the voice of the Spirit, and not be afraid of the future, but remain open and welcoming, lively and full of religious, pastoral and social initiatives.
Different voices are not lacking in Israel either. Worrying voices of increasing divisions within society, which especially last May, during yet another conflict with Gaza, painfully emerged. I say this especially in reference to the crisis of trust especially between Arabs and Jews, both citizens, both inhabitants of the same cities. This reminds us that a passive approach to coexistence is not enough, coexistence must be promoted . It is always the result of a sincere and real desire, which is concretely built. It is also our task, that of the Church, to learn and promote listening and to help recognize and promote the voices that speak of communion, welcome and respect, in all the different spheres of society. There is no lack in the country of voices of people, movements, associations committed to the promotion of coexistence, respect and mutual welcome. Christmas is also about recognizing and appreciating those who know how to see the other as a gift from God.
And finally, we cannot but think of our Palestine, the country in which we find ourselves today. What can we say about this country, always waiting for a future of peace that seems never to arrive? The voice of pain of this people is really a loud, deafening cry. A people that needs to experience justice, that wants to know freedom, that is tired of waiting to be allowed to live freely and with dignity in its own land and in its own house, that does not want to live only by the permits that are now necessary to enter, leave, work or other. What is needed are not concessions, but rights, and an end to years of occupation and violence, with all their dramatic consequences on the life of each individual and the community at large, creating new relationships in which not distrust but mutual trust reigns.
The consequences of this wearisome situation are felt everywhere. It would seem, therefore, that the voices to be heard are those of resentment, prejudice, misunderstanding, suspicion, fear and weariness, which unfortunately often surface in our discourse and find space in many hearts. But it doesn't have to be this way! A Christian cannot afford it!
I must say that by meeting the people in our communities I have learned a lot. I have learned what the word "resilience" concretely consists of. Visiting our community in Gaza a few days ago, I learned, in fact, that even in the most difficult situations, truly problematic ones, one can make room for love, solidarity and joy. I met people who know how to be active and constructive and who, although aware of the enormous difficulties in which they live, never cease to believe that something beautiful can be done for themselves and for others, without cultivating feelings of hatred and rancor. I am convinced that these are the ones who concretely build the Kingdom of God in our midst and that every day, not only today, they live the true spirit of Christmas: making space within themselves for the true Source of life and being themselves full of that life.
Through the Church we have questioned our civil life. We would like to conclude by addressing ourselves directly to Her, to the Church, and asking Her the question we posed at the beginning of this reflection: how and where do we hear the voice of God today? In our torn and divided world, can a Child born two thousand years ago really bring peace today? The Church's answer is the same as always, and yet always new: she announces to us that salvation passes precisely through that innocent and defenseless Child, and that yes, Omnipotence is manifested precisely in that fragile and weak form. The Church teaches us every day, through the Sacraments, that without that gaze, which knows how to go beyond the sign, appearances, time and death, we will not know how to truly read the reality of this world of ours. It is true, evil never ceases to rage on the lives of the weakest and most defenseless, but the road to peace is marked, and it is still our road today. In that Child is the Love that enters the world, that remains in every moment of history, that is an endless adventure and can truly change everything. The Church still invites us today to recognize this mystery that continues to manifest itself among us: in Cyprus, in Jordan, in Israel, in Palestine and throughout the world.
We began by saying that to experience Christmas it is necessary to hear the voice of God. We conclude by adding that that voice awaits those who hear it, and it awaits a personal response.
Christmas is a personal call for each of us here today, as for any believer in the world. It is a call for young people, for families, for the elderly, for workers, for the sick, for prisoners, for rulers. Hearing the voice of the Lord means recognizing and welcoming Him in every little one of the Kingdom we encounter on our way! He calls each of us again today to welcome His voice as the Virgin Mary did. She received an announcement and responded; her response brought Life to the world. As then, so today, God not only works directly in the world, but He also does so through our participation.
In Gaza, I met people who did just that: they listened and said yes to the Lord. Some of them formed families, others responded to a religious vocation, all of them dedicated themselves to serving the Lord and others with joy. Like Mary's response, their responses to God's voice are a source of life for so many others.
Thanks to the Holy Spirit, we too, like the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, like the Shepherds and like the Magi, can give our humble response to Jesus, we can find in Him the meaning of our action. For we are witnesses that when Jesus is at the center of our lives, the earth receives Peace. Wulida al Masih! Alleluia!
† Pierbattista Pizzaballa
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem