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Pope ushers in his first Christmas at Vatican

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Gregorio Borgia / AP

Pope Francis celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. Pope Francis has begun celebrating his first Christmas Eve Mass as pontiff by placing a baby Jesus statue in a replica of a manger in St. Peter’s Basilica. Francis, who turned 77 a week ago, walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica, which was packed with faithful and tourists at the start of Mass.

Updated Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013 | 9:53 p.m.

Vatican Pope Christmas

Pope Francis carries a statue of baby Jesus as he celebrates the Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013. Launch slideshow »

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has ushered in his first Christmas as pontiff, likening Jesus' birth to a burst of light on the sometimes dark moments of human history, marked by pride and ambition.

The 77-year-old Francis celebrated Christmas Eve Mass late Tuesday in St. Peter's Basilica, returning to rest in his Vatican lodgings barely 12 hours before he was due to return to the basilica.

At noon Wednesday, Francis was scheduled to deliver a traditional Christmas day message meant for a worldwide audience. Tens of thousands of tourists and Romans are expected to gather in St. Peter's Square for his speech and blessing delivered from the central balcony of the basilica.

At the Tuesday night Christmas service, Francis drew on the humility theme of his nine-month-old papacy as he cited Jesus' humble beginning as a poor and vulnerable baby.

"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," Francis said of Jesus as he delivered his homily in the basilica, packed with the faithful.

He noted that the first to receive news of Jesus' birth were shepherds, who in society were considered "among the last, the outcast."

The bells of St. Peter's rang as Francis walked briskly up the main aisle of the basilica for the ceremony, which began Tuesday 2 ½ hours before midnight. Keeping with the theme of humility he has set for his new papacy, Francis carried the statue instead of an aide, and kissed a knee of the figure of the newly born Jesus.

The Argentine-born pope, who has also encouraged his flock to be a joyful church, called Jesus "the light who brightens the darkness."

In the world's history and our own personal history, Francis said, "there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows." He added "if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us."

Francis has applied this same vision to the heart of the Vatican's own working, saying in past remarks there is no place for personal ambition in the clerical hierarchy. Rather, he has insisted, the Catholic church must be one of service to those in need.

He quoted the Apostle John, saying, "Whoever hates his brother is in the darkness'" and "'does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.'"

Earlier on Tuesday, in Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus, the top Roman Catholic cleric in the Holy Land, Latin Patriarch Fouard Twal, also promoted the cause of brotherhood.

As thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world packed the West Bank town, the patriarch described the message of Christmas as a "a message of peace, love and brotherhood. We have to be brothers with each other," he said.

The heavy turnout, its highest in years, helped lift spirits in Bethlehem 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.

At the Vatican during the homily, Francis quoted the Apostle John, saying "'whoever hates his brother is in the darkness'" and "'does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.'"

The basilica ceremony was the pope's only public Mass for Christmas. On Wednesday, Christmas Day, Francis will deliver his Christmas message, meant for the world, from the basilica's central balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square.

As he left the basilica in a procession, Francis was preceded by 10 children carrying flowers, a pair of children each from Italy, the Philippines, Lebanon, his native Argentina and Congo.

AP reporter Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report from Bethlehem.

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