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TWO days ago I went to see a Christmas play called Empty Hands in the company of a woman who works with me at the Messenger of Saint Anthony. She told me that her daughter Sofia had an important role to play, but she did not want to give me any further information. The performance had been carefully planned by the primary school teachers, who had mobilized a great deal of their time and effort in preparing the scenes, the choreography, the costumes, and in teaching the lines to the young actors.

The public was mainly the children’s parents and extended family, and the atmosphere was electric, despite the social distancing norms we were forced to comply with because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since, dear reader, you were not present at the performance, I think you will be pleased to know the summary of the simple plot which was inspired by a short story by Italian writer Silvano Fausti.

On the night when Jesus was born the angels brought the Good News to the shepherds, who were keeping watch over their flocks. As soon as they heard of the birth of the Baby Jesus they all decided to go to the cave to worship the Divine Child. Everyone brought along whatever he or she had, be it a chicken, a lamb, a basket of fruit, a loaf of bread… Once at the cave the shepherds began to offer their gifts – all except one: a young shepherd who was so poor that he simply had nothing material to donate. As the others were competing to offer their gifts, he stood apart, embarrassed.

At a certain point St Joseph and Our Lady found it hard to handle all those gifts, especially Mary, who had to hold the Baby Jesus in her arms. Seeing the shepherd with empty hands and watery eyes, she asked him to draw near, and she then placed the Baby Jesus in his arms.

And, surprise, surprise - who was that shepherd with the baby in ‘his’ arms offering the Divine Child to the public? It was none other than Sofia who, with a great smile, was looking straight toward her mother and myself, while the public was giving all the children an enthusiastic, standing ovation.

That simple Nativity Play showed to all present, both great and small, that it is only when our hands are empty of all material and passing things, which are trying to rob Christmas of its real meaning and spirit, that we can effectively welcome the light of Jesus into our hearts. This light has come to warm our hearts and instill love within us. It is a light that we should receive, keep, and then share with those around us.

This simple story by Silvano Fausti must have deeply impressed Pope Francis too, because he mentioned it in his homily during last year’s Christmas Eve Mass.

“Receiving Jesus,” the Pope said “the young shepherd became aware of having received what he did not deserve, that of holding in his arms the greatest gift of all time. Those arms had become the cradle of God.”

“Dear brothers and sisters,” the Pope added, “if your hands seem empty; if you think your heart is poor in love, this night is for you. The grace of God has appeared to shine forth in your life. Accept it, and the light of Christmas will shine forth from you.”

This will be a remarkable Christmas for the global Church: Christmas in the year of the coronavirus. Many Catholics will be unable to attend Mass or come together in person. However, an isolated Christmas doesn’t necessarily mean a hopeless Christmas. As the Church uses social media, live streaming and other non-traditional ways of bringing people together, we can find other ways to reach out to each other, such as prayer, skype meetings, phone calls, and being generous to those who have nothing. Love conquers all difficulties, surmounts all obstacles, and is effective where any other force would fail.

Merry Christmas, dear friend, to you and your loved ones from all the friars of the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua, Italy.

Updated on December 01 2020