God's sign is simplicity. God's sign is the baby. God's sign is that he makes himself small for us. This is how he reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendour. He comes as a baby - defenceless and in need of our help.
He does not want to overwhelm us with his strength. He takes away our fear of his greatness. He asks for our love: so he makes himself a child. He wants nothing other from us than our love, through which we spontaneously learn to enter into his feelings, his thoughts and his will - we learn to live with him and to practise with him that humility of renunciation that belongs to the very essence of love.
God made himself small so that we could understand him, welcome him, and love him. He became a child, so that the Word could be grasped by us. In this way God teaches us to love the little ones. In this way he teaches us to love the weak. In this way he teaches us respect for children.
The child of Bethlehem directs our gaze towards all children who suffer and are abused in the world, the born and the unborn. Towards children who are placed as soldiers in a violent world; towards children who have to beg; towards children who suffer deprivation and hunger; towards children who are unloved.
In all of these it is the Child of Bethlehem who is crying out to us; it is the God who has become small who appeals to us. Let us ask God to help us do our part so that the dignity of children may be respected. May they all experience the light of love, which mankind needs so much more than the material necessities of life.
Jesus 'abbreviated' the Word - he showed us once more its deeper simplicity and unity. Everything taught by the Law and the Prophets is summed up - he says - in the command: 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind --- You shall love your neighbour as yourself' (Mt 22:37-40).
This is everything - the whole faith is contained in this one act of love which embraces God and humanity. Yet now further questions arise: how are we to love God with all our mind, when our intellect can barely reach him? How are we to love him with all our heart and soul, when our heart can only catch a glimpse of him from afar, when there are so many contradictions in the world that would hide his face from us?
This is where the two ways in which God has 'abbreviated' his Word come together. He is no longer distant. He is no longer unknown. He is no longer beyond the reach of our heart. He has become a child for us, and in so doing he has dispelled all doubt. He has become our neighbour, restoring in this way the image of man, whom we often find so hard to love.
For us, God has become a gift. He has given himself. He has entered time for us. He who is the Eternal One, above time, he has assumed our time and raised it to himself on high. Christmas has become the Feast of gifts in imitation of God who has given himself to us. Let us allow our heart, our soul and our mind to be touched by this fact.
Among the many gifts that we buy and receive, let us not forget the true gift: to give each other something of ourselves, to give each other something of our time, to open our time to God. In this way anxiety disappears, joy is born, and the feast is created.
And so, finally, we find yet a third meaning in the saying that the Word became 'brief' and 'small'. The shepherds were told that they would find the child in a manger for animals, who were the rightful occupants of the stable.
Reading Isaiah (1:3), the Fathers concluded that beside the manger of Bethlehem there stood an ox and an ass. At the same time they interpreted the text as symbolising the Jews and the pagans - and thus all humanity - who have need of a Saviour: the God who became a child.
Man, in order to live, needs bread, the fruit of the earth and of his labour. But he does not live by bread alone. He needs nourishment for his soul: he needs meaning that can fill his life. Thus, for the Fathers, the manger of the animals became the symbol of the altar, on which lies the Bread which is Christ himself: the true food for our hearts.
Once again we see how he became small: in the humble appearance of the host, in a small piece of bread, he gives us himself.
Humility and simplicity
All this is conveyed by the sign that was given to the shepherds and is given also to us: the child born for us, the child in whom God became small for us. Let us ask the Lord to grant us the grace of looking upon the crib with the simplicity of the shepherds, so as to receive the joy with which they returned home (cf. Lk 2:20). Let us ask him to give us the humility and the faith with which Saint Joseph looked upon the child that Mary had conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Let us ask the Lord to let us look upon him with that same love with which Mary saw him. And let us pray that in this way the light that the shepherds saw will shine upon us too, and that what the angels sang that night will be accomplished throughout the world: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased.'
This is the shortened text of Benedict XVI's homily at the midnight Mass in St Peter's Basilica, Christmas 2006.