The best gift
The best gift

PERHAPS some of you may remember that a few years ago I wrote in an editorial how, before entering the Conventual Franciscan order, I belonged to a group of young people called Gli Amici di San Francesco (The Friends of St. Francis). We were guided by a friar from the Basilica of St. Anthony who is now 99 years old, and who sits next to me in our refectory: Fr. Giuseppe Ungaro.

Our group looked after some fifty destitute people living in the slums on the outskirts of Padua. Some of them were former inmates and survived doing odd jobs, others made a living by scavenging in the nearby waste dump recovering still usable or recyclable items which they then resold. Some of the women worked as prostitutes. Their children were more or less abandoned to themselves and, as one may imagine, their school attendance and grades were very poor.

Our group went to see them about twice a week, bringing them food and other necessities. We also gave their children private lessons in those subjects in which their grades were particularly low.

An elderly man named Gigetto lived in an old, dilapidated building. He supported himself by selling objects he found in the dump. His house was a kind of scrap yard containing the most diverse objects. I remember, in particular, a pair of almost brand-new skis. Every time we went to see him he always insisted on offering us his terrible tasting red wine – it was impossible to refuse. The ordeal was made worse by the fact that the wine was served in dirty glasses which had not been cleaned since God-knows-when.

One day, shortly before Christmas, four of us went to see him and, as usual, we had to drink his horrible wine, which this time was poured from a bottle that, instead of a cork top, was closed in a haphazard manner by a roll of newspaper. In the middle of his kitchen table a battered statue of a Baby Jesus stood out. It was about 30 cm long, with fading colors here and there. “I found it in the dump just this morning!” he said. “I also tried to find Our Lady and St. Joseph nearby, or maybe the ox and the donkey, but I couldn’t find anything else. Don’t you think it was quite a coincidence to find such a statue just a few days before Christmas?”After this he stood up and asked us to kiss the small statue. How could we refuse?

Well, you may not believe this, but I never felt the desire to become a Franciscan friar more strongly than in that moment. That battered but still smiling statue of the Baby Jesus which Gigetto was holding in his hands and inviting me to kiss really seemed to say to me, “Come with me! Anyone who follows me will never walk in darkness but will always have the light of life” (John 8:12). Gigetto certainly didn’t know it, but in that moment he was giving me the best gift I have ever received.

Christmas can be said to be the season of gifts. Even though some of our Christmas presents may appear to be trivial and routine, they point beyond themselves for they are a way of telling others that we love them. And the reason for this is that Christmas itself was created by a gift. In fact in St. John’s Gospel we read, “God so loved the world that he gave us his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Though Christ came among us weak and empty-handed, he brought his priceless and everlasting gifts. He came to teach us that we are not specks of dust, but children of the heavenly Father destined for eternal glory.

The giving of gifts is important, but receiving them is just as important. Christmas is also a time for receiving – receiving the gifts others give us, and especially the gift God offers us. He didn’t give us the present of an object; he gave us the present of a person: Jesus.

All we have to do this Christmas is to open our hearts and remember that Jesus is the best gift anyone could ever receive. Those who receive the gift of God will always have something to share with others.

May the true spirit of Christmas bless you and keep you throughout the coming year.

Updated on December 01 2017