Gens ask: "Would you like to take Baby Jesus home for Christmas?"
It’s about as predictable at this time of year as the songs played on the “all Christmas music, all the time” radio stations. No, I am not talking about eggnog or fruitcake jokes, I am referring to those of us who bemoan the absence of Christ in Christmas. You see, in past years, I too was pretty quick to join the chorus (pun intended) of those complaining about forgetting the “reason for the season.” Yet, other than making sure my cards said “Merry Christmas” and not “Happy Holidays,” and making sure that my kids got to Mass (on time, no less) I’m not sure I actually contributed to helping others understand that the word “Christmas” is short hand for “Christ’s Mass” – the world’s recognition of the birth of Christ.
But then my family was introduced to the Focolare Movement’s “Baby Jesus Project.” The Focolare, a Lay Ecclesial Movement of the Catholic Church, was founded in Italy by Chiara Lubich during the Second World War. The members of the Focolare seek to bring about Christ’s last request – “that all may be one” – by promoting unity in their communities, workplaces and families.
Lubich used strong words to describe what bugs so many of us this time of year: “This wealthy world has ‘kidnapped’ Christmas and everything around it, and evicted Jesus!” she said. “It loves the poetry, the atmosphere, the friendships, the presents, the lights, the stars, and the songs. It looks to Christmas for the best profits of the year. But there is no thought of Jesus.”
Unlike most of us, however, who agree with Chiara Lubich but do nothing about it, the young members of the Focolare, called the “Gen” (short for “New Generation”) were so inspired by her words that they began a global effort to bring the Christ Child to homes where he might not ordinarily make an appearance. In the months leading up to Christmas, the Gen spend hours casting, painting and wrapping small figurines of the Christ Child to be given away.
And then, despite the cold and the wind, they cheerfully go out to major metropolitan shopping districts, asking passersby if they’d like to “take Baby Jesus home for Christmas?”
And so since last Saturday afternoon, from Chicago’s Magnificent Mile to Central Park in New York City, from Piazza del Popolo in Rome to the “Lights in the Heights” celebration in Houston, Texas, the Gen children have walked among Christmas shoppers, asking them if they’d like to take a Baby Jesus figurine home with them. There is no charge for the basket, but, if shoppers care to they can leave a donation, which is sent to needy people around the world. (Donations in 2014 will go to support child victims of the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone.)
As one can imagine, God can work powerfully when children seek to make him known to others. Over the years, the experiences of the Gen children have shown the remarkable ways in which a small gesture can impact that lives of others. Stories abound, but one of my favorites comes from Pisa, Italy, where a few years ago, a distinguished and expensively dressed gentleman walked past the children of the Gen, who offered him a figurine. He answered abruptly, “I’m not interested, I’m an atheist.” A little boy named Lorenzo replied, “Hi, I’m a Gen! What is an atheist?” The man retorted, “And what is a Gen?” “We are those who do acts of love for others,” said Lorenzo. There was a moment of silence. “Well, even if I don’t believe, I can do an act of love, too!” he concluded, and taking a figurine, he left a very generous offering.
How many atheists were touched last weekend by the children of the Gen? Only the Christ Child himself knows. But if you ever happen to run into the Gen when you’re out and about shopping, stop by, say hello and offer a word of support. These kids can truly tell you about the Best. Gift. Ever.