here is an exemplary parable in a documentary on Pope Francis. While travelling the streets of a South American city in what has often been dubbed the pope mobile, Francis saw among the many thousands lining the streets to welcome him and to receive a blessing, a familiar face in the crowd.
The face in the crowd was an older nun he knew for many years during his ministry as a cleric and bishop in Argentina. He was at first surprised to see her, his surprise illuminating into delight and joy.
Surrounded by thousands, Francis was focused only on one person. He asked his driver to stop the vehicle, as he called the nun’s name, his face beaming, his heart full.
The elderly nun had travelled some distance just to catch a glimpse of Francis. As the pope mobile stopped where the nun stood, Francis asked security to let her through the barrier.
She approached the vehicle to greet Francis, struggling to walk and to reach out to the Pope, who said to her, “I will come to you.” The octogenarian Francis climbed down from the vehicle to greet his old friend, who was overjoyed. The encounter had the resonance and instruction of a biblical parable.
The two embraced and renewed their bond as the crowd looked on. For that moment, it was as if they were alone in the crowd, two friends happy to be in the company of each other.
This is the spirit of Pope Francis, who, in his encounters with others sees the image of Christ, no matter another’s station in life, disability, sexuality or one’s circumstance or struggles.
He reminds others in his encounters of their innate dignity. He shares his presence extravagantly; once famously saying that both humor and a smile are gifts we can share with others.
This is also the Christmas spirit. The greatest gift we can give is our presence to another, especially family and friends, but also acquaintances or strangers whom we meet during the course of a day.
There are so many little gifts we may give to each other in the form of encouragement, civility, respect and other nontangible things.
A friend recalls a woman he recently met who shared with him some of her struggles. Later, the friend returned to where the lady worked to give her a few dollars so that she and her family might have some money for some meals for a day or two.
Christmas is often a difficult season for many, especially those who recently lost loved ones or those who are ill. It is also a difficult time for those who are in difficult financial straits.
There are also many who are lonely, those who are depressed or suffering from emotional and/or mental health issues. Those who are lonely especially need the gift of presence, to remind them that they are not alone.
Some of those tempted to suicide, often speak of feeling alone, that there is no one that they can reach out to or whom they can share their burden or struggles with.
Loneliness and isolation can breed hopelessness and despair, a sense of futility and absence of meaning. Spending time with another, especially those who are particularly lonely, may be an extraordinary gift, and a source of hope.
The presence and presents we give as gifts at Christmas often make all the difference in how others experience its essential meaning and purpose: the celebration of God’s gift to the world, the gift of the Creator in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In offering our presence and our love to others, we mirror God’s generosity in the spirit of gratitude. Generosity and gratitude are companion virtues.
The Christmas carol, O Holy Night, recalls God’s exuberant love and gift:
“O holy night the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth
Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine.”
Like Pope Francis, we have countless and inexhaustible opportunities to express joy, mercy, love, kindness, and to inspire hope in others, especially the vulnerable and the poor.
The very act of kindness to others in the gift of presence and presents tells others that they are remembered, that they possess extraordinary dignity, and that they are loved and well considered.
Another friend tells the story of the fruitcake his aunt makes for him every Christmas. The fruitcake is delicious. But above all, he feels a certain joy and gratitude that he is remembered.
Cooking and baking are often acts of love, because they require thoughtfulness and time, two precious gifts.
At Christmas we have the opportunity to offer acts of kindness to those who offer their services to us throughout the year, including the packing boys and girls at food stores, gas station attendants and others in various industries.
Likewise, Christmas is a time to express gratitude to our colleagues, and those who show kindnesses to us year-round.
The Agencia EEF website reported that at a recent event in preparation for Christmas, “Pope Francis said Wednesday that at a time of year driven by consumerism and individualism people ought to turn to those in need with acts of generosity and kindness”.
Those whom we reach out to throughout the year, and in special ways at Christmas, often receive the gift of “the thrill of hope” and a deeper sense of the worth of their souls because of our generosity and expressions of gratitude.
May we be fortunate this year to offer kindness and acts of love through the presence and presents we offer this Christmas. Consider some act of kindness to others, who may be not expecting a gift of some form.
Perhaps, do it as a surprise. It may make your Christmas and their Christmas more joyous and meaningful. In so giving, we all discover the joy giving rebounds to the giver.
Imagine what a more meaningful and joyous Christmas season it would be if more of us offered the gifts of presence and presents, especially in unexpected ways, to those whose hearts and spirits would be lifted by our generosity of spirit.