When I was in my late teens, I began to come closer to the Christian faith thanks to an encounter with the Church. Yet every year, as Christmas approached, I would get a strange feeling, an almost violent cynicism, an unease expressed in a confrontational attitude, in hostile words and actions.
Without fail, on Christmas Eve, before midnight mass, I would take refuge at the movies to see the bloodiest film playing. I would go alone or in the company of a friend. The theater would be deserted apart from a couple of homeless people who would celebrate Christmas by buying themselves a movie ticket in order to stay warm until the last showing. One year the featured movie was an Inspector Callahan film (Dirty Harry is the original title) in which a coldblooded Clint Eastwood played a trigger-happy cop… Some time ago, one of my brothers confided to me that he remembers me as very angry young man at the time. Perhaps he had in mind the times right around Christmas when we would end up in fist fights.
Why all of this unease? From where came that black stream of turbulent and dangerous water that would sweep me away, right during the period of the year when everyone is most joyful?
At the time I certainly didn’t have a clear idea of what was happening to me. With the passing of the years, though, in company of the Mystery that calls us to life, I have come to understand that it had to do with pain. I couldn’t stand Christmas because I couldn’t stop hoping to receive the gift that would have made me truly happy, as I evidently wasn’t. During those years when I was becoming a man, the “childlike” yearning for surprise did not die, that yearning to unwrap, during the exchange of gifts on Christmas morning, something that would have made my existence joyful from then on. I had reached the age when certain fantasies were to be set aside, but I couldn’t get rid of the yearning.
In the following years, a bit at a time, through encounters that at times led to conflict and at other times to friendship, through suffering and miracles, the surprising Presence that I had so longed for revealed itself to my life. I was finally able to begin understanding that that Presence, capable of changing my life, was the very same Jesus whose birth on earth returns each year on the feast of Christmas. This is the gift that all, even the most cynical and violent, await; the gift so longed for by the hearts of men who dwell in the darkness.
In the image, a frontal detail of the altar of the Church of Santa Maria of Avià (National Museum of Art of Cataluña, Barcelona), ab. 1175.