Last weekend, the meaning of Christmas unfolded in the most unlikely of places — a Roman prison.
As Pope Benedict XVI was talking to inmates at Rebibbia prison, one of the men spoke up, confessing what was likely on the mind of others seated around him: “We have fallen and hurt people. We have lost our freedom, but we ask you to help ensure we don’t lose our dignity.”
And this is what the pope said to the man and his fellow inmates: “I’ve come simply to tell you that God loves you with an infinite love.”
Pope Benedict’s response is the message at the heart of the Christmas season: God loves us — all of us — so much so that he sent his only son to save and redeem us, to show us the right way to live and how to love others in the same way God loves each of us.
During his visit, the pope alluded to a passage from the Gospel of Matthew with which we are all familiar — the passage calls us to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty and hospitality to the stranger. It tells us to clothe the naked, care for the ill and visit the prisoner because, Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
We are challenged to love the prisoner, like Jesus loves the prisoner, no matter the crime, because the prisoner is a child of God created in his own image.
This challenge to love extends to other “tough” cases:
• the immigrant no matter his legal status;
• the poor and chronically homeless, no matter the reason for their plight;
• the mother in a crisis pregnancy and her unborn child, no matter the wisdom of the decisions that led to the situation.
It is often easier said than done because — unlike Jesus — we aren’t perfect.
Although most of us have not lost our freedom like the Rome prisoners, we all at times “have fallen and hurt people.” We don’t always love and comfort the stranger in need.
And it’s not just our relationships with strangers that present the most difficulty. At times, many of us have let pride, selfishness and other sins wound our relationship with God, family members and friends.
At times, we don’t even love ourselves very much.
Lesson for life
That’s why Pope Benedict’s message about God’s “infinite love” is so important for every person to hear, especially at this time of year.
The challenge for us is how we choose to respond to God’s love and share it with others. It’s a challenge to turn away from what separates us from God and others, to ask for forgiveness when necessary, to be more like Jesus in what we say and how we help others, and to more readily recognize the dignity that God bestows on every human being no matter what their situation in life.
It’s a lesson the pope set out to teach a group of Roman inmates. It’s a lesson God also taught us some 2,000 years ago in a Bethlehem manger. It’s a lesson we should embrace not just during this holy season, but all year round.