VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis lauded Jesus' humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby as he celebrated his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff Tuesday in St. Peter's Basilica.
"You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich, and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful, and you made yourself vulnerable," the pontiff said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with faithful.
Earlier, in the Holy Land, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations, bringing warm holiday cheer to the biblical birthplace of Jesus on a cool, clear night.
The heavy turnout in Bethlehem, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in the town, as leaders expressed hope that the coming year would finally bring the Palestinians an independent state of their own.
"The message of Christmas is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other," said Latin Patriarch Fouad Twal, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, as he arrived in town.
Pope Francis has dedicated much of his 9-month-old papacy to drawing attention to the plight of the poor, of children and other vulnerable members of society. He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus' birth were shepherds, who in society were considered "among the last, the outcast."
The Christmas Eve service is physically taxing for reigning popes. In recent years, it was moved earlier into the evening to allow them to have a few more hours' sleep before resuming their duties on Christmas Day. The bells of St. Peter's rang as Pope Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began Tuesday 21/2 hours before midnight. On a regular day, the pope awakens before 5 a.m. and goes to bed before 10 p.m.
In a change from practice, Pope Francis personally kissed and placed a baby Jesus in a manger at the start the solemn service. At the end, he placed the statue in a Nativity scene, then kissed a group of children on their foreheads. As he left the basilica in a procession, the pope was preceded by 10 children carrying flowers.
Pope Francis urged the faithful to shun the material aspects of the feast to concentrate on its spiritual meaning. "Is there a place for the Lord, or only for parties, for shopping, for revelry?" he asked. The Argentine-born pope has also encouraged his flock to be a joyful church, and he called Jesus' "the light who brightens the darkness."
In the world's history and our own personal history, the pope said, "there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows." He added that "if our heart is closed -- if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking -- then darkness falls within us and around us."
Pope Francis has applied this same vision to the heart of the Vatican's own working, saying in past remarks that there is no place for person ambition in the clerical hierarchy. Rather, he has insisted, the Catholic church must be one of service to those in need.
During his homily, the quoted the Apostle John: "Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness" and "does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes."
Christmas celebrations at the Vatican started Tuesday afternoon, with the unveiling of a life-sized Nativity scene in the middle of Saint Peter's Square, next to an 80-foot-high Christmas tree from Bavaria, Germany. Built by Naples craftsmen, the crib was opened for public viewing as the Vatican band played the traditional Neapolitan song "O Sole Mio."
In the run-up to Christmas, Pope Francis paid a visit to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, who in February became the first pope in 600 years to resign.
The basilica ceremony was Pope Francis' only public Mass for Christmas. Today, Christmas Day, he will deliver his Christmas message, meant for the world, from the basilica's central balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square.
Deutsche Presse-Agentur contributed.