Santa Claus had arrived as expected sometime during the night. He left a gift for Frank, a 6-year-old boy. The gift was a small fire truck. Frank, who was poor, was grateful for the gift. On Christmas Day and the days following he would play joyfully with the gift. The following week Frank and his mother visited the local convent. While she visited with the sisters, Frank played with his truck in front of the large crèche. He was captivated by the Nativity scene and examined it closely.
When one of the sisters came in to check on him, he asked incredulously: “Where is the Child’s gifts? Did Santa forget him?” The sister replied: “Oh he comes from a poor family, they could not afford gifts.”
Later in life, Frank recalled humorously that he thought poor old Santa must have had something like a “senior moment.” Looking at the Christ child whose arms were outstretched in the manger, Frank was moved. “We are poor,” he thought, “but my mother found a way to get me a box of crayons for Christmas; this poor Child has nothing.” So he took his fire truck and placed it between the child’s outstretched arms and then went home.
The story is adapted from a true account of a noted author who recalled this early childhood experience. There are other stories of children, whether fictional or factual, and they tell a similar tale. “The Little Drummer Boy” is a popular hymn in this category, and the “Clown of God” is another example.
In all the stories a child recognizes something in the Christ child that calls for a gift as we celebrate Christmas. The gift is something that is dear to them. The giving comes from the heart; even in the midst of great poverty, the child is moved to charity.
Our focus in Advent now turns to our preparation for the celebration of Christmas, the Nativity of the Lord. The gift giving associated with this season has its roots in the gifts offered by the Magi at the Epiphany of the Lord.
The varying degrees of “gift giving” can be startling when we see the affluence of some versus the poverty of others. We might take the opportunity this week to recognize the great gift we have all received — regardless of our social or economic status. We prepare to celebrate the gift of Emmanuel, the Christ child being born “for us.”
The annunciation account in the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent comes from the Gospel of Matthew and recalls the encounter between Joseph and the angel. The angel dispels Joseph’s fears about taking Mary as his wife, seeing that she is with child.
He explains: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” The evangelist then goes on to say: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
The gift we celebrate at Christmas is the gift of God himself. Jesus is Emmanuel. Jesus is “God with us.”
Oscar Romero, the recently beatified martyred archbishop of San Salvador, once wrote: “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. That someone is God, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.”
In this elaboration we might recall the first Beatitude when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”
In the story above, the young boy Frank brought a fire truck to the infant Jesus. The significance in the story lies not so much in the gift as in the act of giving it away. As we have one more week before Christmas we might take the opportunity amidst all the festivity to ask ourselves what we bring with us to the altar of the crib. What will be our gift this year to the one who has given us everything?
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.