Madonna of the Book Painting by Sandro Botticelli. The Madonna of the Book, or the Madonna del Libro, is a small painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, and is preserved in the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. The painting is executed in tempera on panel. It dates from between 1480 and 1483.
“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn… The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’”—Luke 2:7, 10-14
Letter #192, 2021, Friday, December 24: Christmas Eve
Everyone is sending out their most heartfelt wishes for a blessed Christmas, and I am among them.
As I sat here thinking what I might add of value, I received an email from a dear friend who lives in Canada, who is descended from Italians who were immigrants to the New World:
December 24, 2021
I just came across this recording of “Tu scendi dalle Stelle” [“You come down from heaven,” video below] the most beautiful Italian Christmas Carol of all, and once the most beloved of all. Every time I listen to it, my eyes always swell with tears. It reminds me of my childhood and my parents and all of my aunts and uncles who are now long gone.
When I hear this song I am transported back in time and place to a different world.
A time when I could never imagine that my parents and all of the family I loved would no longer be with me.
Have a blessed Christmas. There will be much to do in the new year…
I clicked on the link, and after a couple of seconds of perplexity, when the song was waiting to load, I started to listen, and the simple words transported me too back in time, to a Rome and an Italy of the 1980s and 1990s, when things seemed simpler, and children gazed at Christmas gifts with wonder, and so I decided to offer this link to you.
It is a Christmas Carol that most Italians know and love, but many outside of Italy are much less aware of.
So here is a Christmas present for all readers: a simple song from a simpler time…. (click on the video image below)
A blessed Christmas to all… —RM
Here is the text of the Christmas Eve homily of Pope Francis. I was struck by the use of a line of poetry by the wonderful American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. My father studied her poetry, and used to read it to us children in our home. In this line that the Pope cites, she rightly warns us that if we find our heaven here (by earthly success) we will perhaps not find it above. It is more or less what Jesus said, when he warned that it is harder for a rich man to get into heaven than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Let us remember, then, that the simplicity of the infant Jesus in the manger is a simplicity of glory; that the simple, pure and holy things of the spirit are more important than all the passing things of this world…
“In the darkness, a light shines”
Homily for Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome
December 24, 2021
by Pope Francis
In the darkness, a light shines. An angel appears, the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds and finally the message awaited for centuries is heard: “To you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (Lk 2:11).
The angel goes on to say something surprising. He tells the
shepherds how to find the God who has come down to earth: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger” (v. 12).
That is the sign: a child, a baby lying in the dire poverty of a manger. No more bright lights or choirs of angels.
Only a child. Nothing else, even as Isaiah had foretold: “unto us a child is born” (Is 9:6).
The Gospel emphasizes this contrast. It relates the birth of Jesus beginning with Caesar Augustus, who orders the census of the whole world: it presents the first Emperor in all his grandeur.
Yet immediately thereafter it brings us to Bethlehem, where there is no grandeur at all: just a poor child wrapped in swaddling cloths, with shepherds standing by.
That is where God is, in littleness. This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters.
Brothers and sisters, standing before the crib, we contemplate what is central, beyond all the lights and decorations. We contemplate the child. In his littleness, God is completely present.
Let us acknowledge this: “Baby Jesus, you are God, the God who becomes a child”. Let us be amazed by this scandalous truth.
The One who embraces the universe needs to be held in another’s arms. The One who created the sun needs to be warmed. Tenderness incarnate needs to be coddled. Infinite love has a miniscule heart that beats softly. The eternal Word is an “infant”, a speechless child. The Bread of life needs to be nourished. The Creator of the world has no home.
Today, all is turned upside down: God comes into the world in littleness. His grandeur appears in littleness.
Let us ask ourselves: can we accept God’s way of doing things? This is the challenge of Christmas: God reveals himself, but men and women fail to understand.
He makes himself little in the eyes of the world, while we continue to seek grandeur in the eyes of the world, perhaps even in his name.
God lowers himself and we try to become great.
The Most High goes in search of shepherds, the unseen in our midst, and we look for visibility. Jesus is born in order to serve, and we spend a lifetime pursuing success. God does not seek power and might; he asks for tender love and interior littleness.
This is what we should ask Jesus for at Christmas: the grace of littleness. “Lord, teach us to love littleness. Help us to understand that littleness is the way to authentic greatness.”
What does it mean, concretely, to accept littleness? In the first place, it is to believe that God desires to come into the little things of our life; he wants to inhabit our daily lives, the things we do each day at home, in our families, at school and in the workplace. Amid our ordinary lived experience, he wants to do extraordinary things.
His is a message of immense hope. Jesus asks us to rediscover and value the little things in life. If He is present there, what else do we need?
Let us stop pining for a grandeur that is not ours to have. Let us put aside our complaints and our gloomy faces, and the greed that never satisfies!
Yet there is more. Jesus does not want to come merely in the little things of our lives, but also in our own littleness: in our experience of feeling weak, frail, inadequate, perhaps even “messed up.”
Dear sister or brother, if, as in Bethlehem, the darkness of night overwhelms you, if you feel surrounded by cold indifference, if the hurt you carry inside cries out, “You are of little account; you are worthless; you will never be loved the way you want”, tonight God answers back.
Tonight he tells you: “I love you just as you are. Your littleness does not frighten me, your failings do not trouble me. I became little for your sake. To be your God, I became your brother. Dear brother, dear sister, don’t be afraid of me. Find in me your measure of greatness. I am close to you, and one thing only do I ask: trust me and open your heart to me.”
To accept littleness means something else too. It means embracing Jesus in the little ones of today. Loving Him, that is, in the least of our brothers and sisters. Serving Him in the poor, those most like Jesus who was born in poverty. It is in them that He wants to be honoured.
On this night of love, may we have only one fear: that of offending God’s love, hurting him by despising the poor with our indifference. Jesus loves them dearly, and one day they will welcome us to heaven.
A poet once wrote: “Who has found the heaven – below – Will fail of it above” (E. DICKINSON, Poems, P 96-17).
Let us not lose sight of heaven; let us care for Jesus now, caressing Him in the needy, because in them He makes himself known.
We gaze once again at the crib, and we see that at his birth Jesus is surrounded precisely by those little ones, by the poor.
Who are they? The shepherds.
They were the most simple people, and closest to the Lord. They found him because they lived in the fields, “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk 2:8). They were there to work, because they were poor. They had no timetables in life; everything depended on the flock. They could not live where and how they wanted, but on the basis of the needs of the sheep they tended.
That is where Jesus is born: close to them, close to the forgotten ones of the peripheries. He comes where human dignity is put to the test. He comes to ennoble the excluded and He first reveals Himself to them: not to educated and important people, but to poor working people.
God tonight comes to fill with dignity the austerity of labour. He reminds us of the importance of granting dignity to men and women through labour, but also of granting dignity to human labour itself, since man is its master and not its slave.
On the day of Life, let us repeat: no more deaths in the workplace! And let us commit ourselves to ensuring this.
As we take one last look at the crib, in the distance, we glimpse the Magi, journeying to worship the Lord. As we look more closely, we see that all around Jesus everything comes together: not only do we see the poor, the shepherds, but also the learned and the rich, the Magi.
In Bethlehem, rich and poor come together, those who worship, like the Magi, and those who work, like the shepherds. Everything is unified when Jesus is at the centre: not our ideas about Jesus, but Jesus Himself, the living One.
So then, dear brothers and sisters, let us return to Bethlehem, let us return to the origins: to the essentials of faith, to our first love, to adoration and charity.
Let us look at the Magi who make their pilgrim way, and as a synodal Church, a journeying Church, let us go to Bethlehem, where God is in man and man in God.
There the Lord takes first place and is worshipped; there the poor have the place nearest Him; there the shepherds and Magi are joined in a fraternity beyond all labels and classifications.
May God enable us to be a worshipping, poor and fraternal Church. That is what is essential. Let us go back to Bethlehem. It is good for us to go there, obedient to the Gospel of Christmas, which shows us the Holy Family, the shepherds, the Magi: all people on a journey.
Brothers and sisters, let us set out, for life itself is a pilgrimage. Let us rouse ourselves, for tonight a light has been lit, a kindly light, reminding us that, in our littleness, we are beloved sons and daughters, children of the light (cf. 1 Thess 5:5).
Let us rejoice together, for no one will ever extinguish this light, the light of Jesus, who tonight shines brightly in our world.