“He remembers Bethlehem even better than we do, and with longing.” — John Paul I
While I was reading Pope Benedict’s homily for Christmas Midnight Mass, I recalled this exquisite Midnight Mass homily that John Paul I gave as bishop of Vittorio Veneto almost fifty years ago, December 24, 1961. What a wonderful way to begin our Christmas Day!
It has come again, but in what way?
After being born of the Blessed Virgin once, Jesus will not be born again in the same way; so Christmas is not coming again in this sense. He has already returned to heaven, and he will continue to remain there, even as a man. The immortal king of the ages: Christus heri, et hodie: ipse et in saecula. [Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever] (Heb. 13:8).
Though radiant with glory, in a very different situation from the one in Bethlehem, he is still the same as in Bethlehem. In Bethlehem, he had a heart full of love for us; that love still swells his heart even now.
We are remembering Bethlehem this evening; he remembers it better than we do, and with longing. And he says: “I am not being born again, but if necessary, I would be ready to start over and do everything again from the beginning.” And he draws near us; and in a way only he can, he tries to touch our hearts. And he speaks: “Let yourselves be captured, don’t run away from me, as you always do!” This is the way he returns at Christmas.
So “celebrating Christmas” does not mean just being with our own relatives, in the intimacy of our own homes, savoring sweet memories. No. It means above all hearing in our souls the voice of Christ, who is drawing near, and letting ourselves be seized by his love.
It is, in fact, about the love of Jesus that we must speak this evening. It is the love that moved Him to come down from heaven.
“Father,” he said, “What miserable adoration men give you down there! I will go down myself; I will put myself at their head, I will be one of them, and they will worship God with me; it will be a worthy and resounding worship, and I will bring them after me, saved to you in heaven!”
“All right, I accept, go ahead and go down,” God the Father answered “and I will leave you free in regard to the way to choose. There is a comfortable way: birth as a rich man, an easy life, full success, a triumphant return. There is also the hard way: birth in poverty, a life of toil, apparent failure, death on the cross: choose, you are free.”
“I choose the hard way,” answered the Son (cf. Heb. 12:2). “If I chose the other one, it would be more difficult for them to recognize me as a brother. I choose the hard way: I want them to be able to say: ‘Our priest is able to sympathize with our weaknesses . . . He has experienced them all, except for sin’” (cf. Heb. 4:15).
Now that the choice is made, look at him in action. “Rich though he was,” says St. Paul, “he made himself poor for love of us” (2 Cor. 8:9). Poor in earthly goods, so that we might become rich in virtue and holiness.
He was in the condition of God, Paul says again, really equal to God, but he did not consider staying to enjoy the honors given to God a kind of prey to be held on to with the teeth at any cost; he emptied himself of those external honors by taking the livery of a slave, made like one of us (Cf. Phil. 2:5).
And he did not let himself be moved from that way. What, in substance, were the three temptations in the desert? This: an attempt to make him change his program and his way. “What do you mean, personal sacrifices! Spectacular exhibitions, and a glorious and worldly reign, that is the way to go!” said the devil. And Jesus: “Away from me, Satan. The plan is already traced out, I even had it written by the prophets, and that is the way it will stay” (cf. Mt. 4:1 11).
St. Peter also had experience of how firm Jesus was in his proposal of sacrificing himself. Our Lord was foretelling that in Jerusalem he would suffer greatly and die. “For the love of God, Lord! This will never happen!” St. Peter burst out. And Christ, immediately: “Go away from here you tempter. You are a scandal to me. You have no sense of the things of God” (cf. Mt. 16:21 23).
“I have not come to be served, but to serve,” he kept repeating. (cf. Mt. 20:28). “I have come to seek out, and to save” (Lk. 19:10). Yes, he is the great seeker of souls and rejoices when he can bring just one of them to salvation (Lk. 15:7, 10). Go through the whole Gospel: you will find so many things, but this above all: he loved us, he loved us so much, he loved us through sacrifice. Paul sums up the whole Gospel well when he says, “dilexit me et tradidit semetipsum pro me” (Gal. 2:20): “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
But St. Paul was not content with summing up; he drew some practical conclusions.
That love, he said, is only the first love; now must come the second, mine. Christ has written the first page of the book; now I must write the second. The immense love that Christ has for me leaves me no peace, it compels me, it cries out to me: “Get moving, Paul, and do something for him in return” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:14).
And he really got moving: he set out to follow Christ as though on a impassioned and passion-inspiring adventure. That time when I was on horseback on the way to Damascus, he says, Christ seized me and made me his. I was happy to become his prey; so happy that, from that time on, I have tried to run after him in an extraordinary chase in which one is at once hunter and prey (cf. Phil. 3:12).
Here is a program worthy of a true Christian. You will say: but who puts it into practice? Cardinal dalla Costa, who they buried yesterday evening, he put it into practice. (1) I was close to him, as a student, for about two weeks. That meeting made a very deep impression on me. Words that were sword and fire in church; outside church, a kindness to the poor, the sick, and the children that captivated people. And such faith that it seemed that he saw the Lord with his own eyes and that outside of the Lord nothing mattered to him. I never saw him again after that, but I read his books and heard about his virtues.
He belonged to the breed of bishops who, hard as rock, turn to their persecutor and say to him “Go ahead, do your job and strike. But remember that if you are the hammer, I am the anvil. The hammer will break but the anvil will not break and the Church will remain!” At difficult moments, when it was dangerous to speak certain truths, he went into the pulpit at Padua and spoke those truths, to a full cathedral. And he topped them off with the following words:
“On the great day of my consecration I was told: You will not call evil good and good evil, truth error and error truth, virtue vice and vice virtue. Faithful to this terrible summons, my words must be those of truth and justice, always and in everything, and before God, I trust that they will be. What indeed could induce me to lie? Fear of offending the great? I have never known it. Hankering after money? It has never tormented my poor heart. The desire to climb higher? I would have been happy to go lower.”
There are then, still some people, and even some who are close to us, who love the Lord and who follow him at the cost of any sacrifice, and who encourage us by their example to do the same.
Let us follow him too. It will be a “Merry Christmas” for us if tonight we leave this cathedral with an ardent love for Jesus Christ in our hearts and this decision in our wills, “Lord, this time I will really let myself be captured, I will be your prey, and at the same time the hunter who pursues You.”