Pope Benedict begins Christmas Eve celebrations

4:20 PM, Dec 24, 2012   |    comments
Pope Benedict XVI began Christmas Eve ceremonies by lighting the Christmas candle, symbolizing the light of Christ, in the window of his Vatican apartment on Monday, Dec. 24, 2012.
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VATICAN (USA TODAY) - Monday afternoon, Pope Benedict XVI began Christmas Eve ceremonies by lighting the Christmas candle, symbolizing the light of Christ, in the window of his Vatican apartment.

An assistant held the match and steadied the glass-enclosed candle and then the pope blessed the crowd below, which had gathered for the unveiling of a Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square.

The Nativity scene has already made headlines -- but not for religious reasons. It was donated to the Vatican after embarrassing leaked documents pointed out that the Holy See spent $717,000 for last year's creche.

The 2012 creche, an elaborate miniature recreation of Bethlehem with dozens of tiny characters looking toward the glowing manger scene, was paid for with corporate and private donors who raised $110,000. The Vatican kicked in nearly $24,000 for labor and set-up costs. Last week, the pope pardoned his former butler who gave stolen documents about Vatican finances to an Italian journalist.

Christmas season is an exhausting run for the 85-year old Benedict -- the sixth-oldest pope since the 15th century.

He has a few hours for a family dinner with his brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger, at the papal apartments before the 10 p.m. Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Peter's Basilica, according to Reuters.

Christmas Day is his annual blessing from the church to the world, Urbi et Orbi, and his Christmas message. New Year's Eve there are prayers to thank God for his goodness in the passing year. Then New Year's Day he celebrates a special Mass and offers a prayer for world peace. That's when a global audience tunes in to the Vatican to see him lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics in prayer and celebration.

Last year, the pope began using a rolling platform to traverse the football-field-length of the main aisle of St. Peter's Basilica. He also uses a cane in public on taxing trips.

The pope has put new energy into making strategic use of modern media outreach. More than 2.2 million people -- 1.3 million in English -- now follow Benedict's personal Twitter account in eight languages. So far there have been 12 tweets -- answering questions posed to him or drawing 140-characters of inspiration from his addresses.

He wrote about concern for global poverty in an opinion piece for the British paper, the Financial Times, last week.

The pope caused a minor media stir earlier this year over the third book in his best-selling series, Jesus of Nazareth. Critics zeroed in on fine points in The Infancy Narratives, such as whether the angels spoke or sang at the news of Christ's birth.

Benedict writes that, "speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present." This puts the pope's stamp on the real presence of angels but not necessarily on the other well-known faces in the Christmas tableau -- the Magi (the three kings).

For those who celebrate Jan. 6, when Christians say the Magi reached Bethlehem with their gifts, Benedict calls them historical events with theological relevance, says, Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, which publishes Benedict 's writings in English.

But Benedict's defense of historical validity of the Christmas story in the Gospels is less important than his theology-for-the-common-Christian approach, says John Allen, Vatican expert for the National Catholic Reporter and author of a biography of Benedict.

Allen quotes the pope in pointing out his chief aim is "to help people on their path toward and alongside Jesus."

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