by Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The lights glowing on the Christmas tree in St. Peter’s Square, like Christmas lights everywhere, are reminders that Jesus is the light of the world, Pope Francis said.
While he did not attend the Vatican’s tree-lighting ceremony Dec. 13, the pope personally thanked the German donors and their Czech neighbors for the tree during an audience earlier in the day.
The 82-foot-tall tree was a gift of the German city of Waldmunchen, but it grew just over the border in the Czech Republic. Mayors from Bavaria in Germany and Bohemia in the Czech Republic joined hands to light the tree.
“This tree is international,” the pope told the 350 pilgrims who traveled to the Vatican for the tree-lighting ceremony.
The Gospel story of Jesus’ birth tells how the shepherds tending their flocks nearby were surrounded by a “great light,” the pope said. “Today, too, Jesus continues to dispel the darkness of error and sin and brings humanity the joy of blazing divine light.”
“We should let ourselves be enveloped by the light of his truth so that the joy of the Gospel would fill the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus,” he said.
As the sun was about to set, the German and Czech pilgrims – many in traditional costumes – gathered with Vatican officials for the ceremony. The festivities began with the Vatican police band playing the Vatican and German national anthems.
The Bavarians said they particularly were proud that it was the second time they donated a tree to the Vatican; the first was in 1984.
Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, president of the commission governing Vatican City State, told the pilgrims that while the Christmas tree was a northern European tradition, it was a custom Pope John Paul II brought to the Vatican in 1982.
“The tree, in every culture, is a symbol of life,” the cardinal said. A Christmas tree is a reminder that “the Lord comes to give us his life. Let us welcome him in our hearts and, in the glow of its light, let us bring him to the world.”
In an unrelated appearance, Pope Francis blessed a sculpture titled “Jesus the Homeless,” calling it a “beautiful piece of art.”
The plan is for the sculpture to be placed close to the Vatican Radio offices near the Tiber River in memory of a homeless woman who slept there every night before dying outside in the cold.
“I realized, if you wanted to make a great epic sculpture or painting, you needed a great epic subject matter,” said Timothy Schmalz, the Canadian-born artist. In 2011, inspired by a section of Matthew 25, the artist began working on “Jesus the Homeless.”