Following is the midnight Christmas homily by Most Rev. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem on December 24, 2017:
Dear Mr. President,
Most Reverend Excellencies,
Dear faithful, and all television viewers,
May the Lord grant you all peace!
We have come here once again to Bethlehem, where the Virgin Mary – spouse of Joseph, fulfilled the days of her childbirth, giving birth to her firstborn Son, wrapping Him in swaddling clothes and laying Him in the manger (cf. Lk. 2:7).
The Church of God, spread throughout the world, like the shepherds of that night, is called by the voice of the Angels and is illuminated by the shining star of Bethlehem. And thus, she recognizes and contemplates in such littleness, in such apparent ordinary insignificance, the merciful act of God who places this Child – this little Sign – in our world and in our history. Merciful act of God, whose beginning is apparently insignificant but whose kingdom to come will be surely victorious.
This Child is, precisely, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace (Is 9:5). And yet He seems small and poor, hidden and humble. This night He is – and throughout His life up to His Crucifixion – the true mustard seed placed in the ground; He is the hidden leaven in the flour, the grain of wheat fallen into the ground to bring forth fruit.
Yes: The Birth of the Lord is a humble beginning, (primordia salutis nostrae, the beginning of our salvation, as Pope St. Leo the Great would say). It is a little Sign, a discreet gift, as humble, little and delicate as love is when it is true. If we want to sing glory tonight, if we want to receive peace, if we want to recognize power, it is the glory, the peace, the power of love that is given, trusted and entrusted, like this Child.
Therefore, tonight, with the Church of which I am Bishop, and with all of you, I would like to let myself to be questioned by this sign, to allow myself to be provoked by the prophecy more than by the feast of the Nativity, to be able to receive this seed so that it may bring forth fruit. There is a risk that I would like to avoid: the risk of reducing Christmas to a festival, as beautiful and dear as we want it, but which is made silent and insignificant, almost self-evident by its traditional repetition. The Birth of Christ is a prophecy, which, on one hand, reveals the action of God and, on the other, asks us for a concrete response. If without the action of God, Christmas is impossible, then without our action, Christmas is useless. As with the Shepherds, so also for us, Christmas is the call to a journey, a journey backwards.
Usually it is the child who grows up, it is the weak one who wants to be strong, the poor who wants to be rich. Our history proceeds like this. Greatness and power are our dreams. They are the hidden desire that moves all of us in daily relationships as also in international relations. It’s a continuous struggle, in us, between us and around us. It’s a war that Herod fights every day, to become greater, to occupy more space, to defend positions and borders. Unfortunately, it is also a story of these days.
I do not need to repeat here what I have already said many times in various institutional meetings, about what we are living in these days. I have said it clearly and do not need to repeat it here. But I can, and I must recommend to those who have the power to decide our future, to politicians, to have courage, not to fear to dare and to risk, not to fear being alone, not to abandon each one’s vision. Today even more than ever we need from you a real and serious policy. Despite the many disappointments of the past and of these present days, with determination, do not abandon having a vision, but on the contrary, even more than before, let yourself be aroused by the cry of the poor and the afflicted because the Lord God “does not forget the cry of the afflicted” (Ps 9:13).
But what we say to the politician, we say first of all to ourselves. Then, as today, we all look for a powerful and strong Kingdom that makes us feel protected and safe. To the shepherds and to us, however, a contrary sign is offered – a defenceless and helpless newborn: all the glory sung by the angels, the entire heavenly army that was also mobilized on that night, are focussed on the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in the manger. We are then invited to a reversal of logic and behavior. We are invited to a metanoia, to a change of mentality and perspective: from the great to the small, from strength to weakness, from force to gift, because that is how God acts!
I feel this prophecy is especially true in our time and here, not only for each one, but for all of us Christians of the Holy Land, who are worried and perhaps afraid by the reduction of our numbers, the inadequacy of our means, and the insecurity that characterizes our daily life . Squeezed between opposing powers, sometimes victims of dynamics and strategies greater than us, we would perhaps also like to follow ways of force and power. Anxiety and fear could make us insensitive to that sign and cause us to transform Christmas into the simple feast of identity and consolation and also a search for strength and power, wealth and possession.
And instead Christmas, in revealing to us the action of God, shows us who we are and who we must be as Christians, here and throughout the world. We too, and also our Church, with the universal Church, are and must be a discreet sign of the power of love, a humble beginning of a Kingdom of peace and truth. This will come not by force of arms but by conversion of life. We must be a presence of sharing and brotherhood, weak perhaps, misunderstood and even disputed, but a prophecy and proclamation of the presence of God himself among men, because what is God’s weakness is stronger than men (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:25).
At Christmas we can also say with Saint Paul: when I am weak then I am strong, when I become small it is then that I am great, when I become poor then I am rich, in the image of Him who, being rich, was made poor for us.
Bethlehem, the Holy Land and the Churches that live, pray and suffer here, must and can be for the whole Church and for the world a living reminder of the Christian mystery of the grain of wheat that bears fruit by giving itself to death. The presence of the Church, the witness of Christians everywhere in the world, but above all here, cannot but be a “Christmas” (and “Easter”) presence: our life and our actions cannot but be in conformity with the life and action of Christ, born small and poor to become bread and life for humanity. Courage then, Church of the Holy Land! Courage, brothers and sisters! We can continue to live and remain here, in weakness and in poverty, because these are the ways of God when He wants to come into the world and bless humanity. Let us not be sad, because the joy of the Lord is our strength!
Courage also you authorities of the world: you can attempt the adventure of peace and brotherhood, renouncing to aim for greatness and power but bending yourself to serve the good of humanity. The door of humility that opens into the Basilica of Christ’s birth is also the entrance to true greatness. And when in a little while, we will crowd around to touch and kiss the Child of Bethlehem, let’s put our heart and life in that gesture, welcoming even for ourselves the Christmas way of littleness and humility, the only way of salvation and peace.