Sunday, 27 December 2009

Benedict XVI's Christmas Eve homily

Other bloggers, with a primarily Liturgical intent in doing so, have highlighted a passage from this homily in which Pope Benedict urges his listeners to put the things of God first in their lives, quoting from the Rule of St Benedict:
The Gospel tells us: God is the highest priority. If anything in our life deserves haste without delay, then, it is God's work alone. The Rule of Saint Benedict contains this teaching: "Place nothing at all before the work of God (i.e. the divine office)". For monks, the Liturgy is the first priority. Everything else comes later. In its essence, though, this saying applies to everyone. God is important, by far the most important thing in our lives. The shepherds teach us this priority. From them we should learn not to be crushed by all the pressing matters in our daily lives. From them we should learn the inner freedom to put other tasks in second place -- however important they may be -- so as to make our way towards God, to allow him into our lives and into our time. Time given to God and, in his name, to our neighbour is never time lost. It is the time when we are most truly alive, when we live our humanity to the full.
However, as usual with Pope Benedict XVI, it is worth reading the whole homily. The full text can be found here at ZENIT. What the Holy Father does in his homily is take the shepherds of the Christmas story as an example of how we should respond to the invitation that God puts forward to us, not only in the mystery of the Incarnation, but also in the signs of his presence in our lives. It is the urgency and promptness of their response to the invitation to go to Bethlehem that Pope Benedict proposes as an example for us to follow. Whilst the passage in which he refers to the Liturgy and our Christian response in charity to our neighbour (cf the two part treatment of Deus Caritas Est - first God's love for us and our call to love God, and then, inseperable from it, our call to love of our neighbour) is most immediately addressed to those who might be called "practising Christians", other passages are addressed to those who might be non-Christian or lukewarm in their Christian practise.

In the second paragraph there is a call to adherence to the truth, another typical Benedictine them:
The first thing we are told about the shepherds is that they were on the watch -- they could hear the message precisely because they were awake. We must be awake, so that we can hear the message. We must become truly vigilant people. What does this mean? The principal difference between someone dreaming and someone awake is that the dreamer is in a world of his own. His "self" is locked into this dreamworld that is his alone and does not connect him with others. To wake up means to leave that private world of one's own and to enter the common reality, the truth that alone can unite all people. Conflict and lack of reconciliation in the world stem from the fact that we are locked into our own interests and opinions, into our own little private world. Selfishness, both individual and collective, makes us prisoners of our interests and our desires that stand against the truth and separate us from one another.
Pope Benedict goes on to talk about man's receptivity to God:
Awake, the Gospel tells us. Step outside, so as to enter the great communal truth, the communion of the one God. To awake, then, means to develop a receptivity for God: for the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us; for the many indications of his presence. There are people who describe themselves as "religiously tone deaf". The gift of a capacity to perceive God seems as if it is withheld from some. And indeed -- our way of thinking and acting, the mentality of today's world, the whole range of our experience is inclined to deaden our receptivity for God, to make us "tone deaf" towards him. And yet in every soul, the desire for God, the capacity to encounter him, is present, whether in a hidden way or overtly.
The section of the homily that caught my eye, however, was one in which Pope Benedict suggests that the shepherds "went over" to see the Christ child at Bethlehem rather as if they were going to visit a neighbour (my italics added, because I was very attracted by this sentence - not that I think it applies to me!).
Some commentators point out that the shepherds, the simple souls, were the first to come to Jesus in the manger and to encounter the Redeemer of the world. The wise men from the East, representing those with social standing and fame, arrived much later. The commentators go on to say: this is quite natural. The shepherds lived nearby. They only needed to "come over" (cf. Lk 2:15), as we do when we go to visit our neighbours. The wise men, however, lived far away. They had to undertake a long and arduous journey in order to arrive in Bethlehem. And they needed guidance and direction. Today too there are simple and lowly souls who live very close to the Lord. They are, so to speak, his neighbours and they can easily go to see him. But most of us in the world today live far from Jesus Christ, the incarnate God who came to dwell amongst us.
And, to try to summarise, using two passages, one from near the beginning and one from near the end of Pope Benedict's homily:

For you the Saviour is born: through the Gospel and those who proclaim it, God now reminds us of the message that the Angel announced to the shepherds. It is a message that cannot leave us indifferent. If it is true, it changes everything. If it is true, it also affects me. Like the shepherds, then, I too must say: Come on, I want to go to Bethlehem to see the Word that has occurred there. The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel for a reason. They show us the right way to respond to the message that we too have received.....

Let us once again listen directly to the Gospel. The shepherds tell one another the reason why they are setting off: "Let us see this thing that has happened." Literally the Greek text says: "Let us see this Word that has occurred there." Yes indeed, such is the radical newness of this night: the Word can be seen. For it has become flesh. The God of whom no image may be made -- because any image would only diminish, or rather distort him -- this God has himself become visible in the One who is his true image, as Saint Paul puts it (cf. 2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15). In the figure of Jesus Christ, in the whole of his life and ministry, in his dying and rising, we can see the Word of God and hence the mystery of the living God himself. This is what God is like.

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