Dear Sisters and Brothers,

It has always seemed strange to me that we spend so much time preparing for Christmas and yet as soon as Christmas Day is over, we are already trying to forget it and move on with life. With the recession and having to cut back, the timing was somewhat slower this year, but generally you can guarantee that as soon as October is moving out the Christmas trimmings are moving in. I suppose you can lay some blame at the door of the Church for that; there has always been the tradition of spending a month preparing for Christmas in the season of Advent. So then, what about the Twelve Days of Christmas? Where have they gone?

It is interesting that the Church also seems to be in something of a hurry. Yes there are indeed the Twelve Days of Christmas culminating in the three Kings arriving to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They represent us, the Gentiles, the non-Jewish nations, reminding us that Jesus is Lord of all peoples. Then suddenly we are celebrating the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. From the baby in the crib we move directly to a grown man and the beginning of his mission with all the accompanying trouble, opposition, wrangling and plotting. A similar contrast can be experienced even during the Twelve Days of Christmas for we celebrate some brutal and bloody feast days – St Stephen the first martyr who was stoned to death. Then the Holy Innocents, those babies and young children killed in order to secure King Herod’s tyrannical throne. Finally, one of our own martyrs, Thomas á Becket, cut down in his Cathedral by followers of the King.

No sooner are we contemplating the baby Jesus in the manger adoringly cared for by Mary his mother and his foster-father Joseph, flanked by the traditional ox and ass, with a sprinkling of shepherds and angels, than the Church seems to be nudging us back to the cold, stark realities of daily life – prejudice, corruption, thirst for power, suffering and death. The warmth and innocent joys of Christmas don’t last long, even in the Church, so it would seem!

The word that is used to describe the deep and true meaning of the event that happened on the first Christmas Day is “Incarnation”. It literally means “becoming flesh”. In Jesus, God becomes part of our world, part of our nature, part of our lives and experience. You see, if we are not careful, Christmas can turn into a fairy-tale, nothing more than a children’s story, a nostalgic memory. But it is none of these; it is the celebration of the Word of God, the Son of God taking upon himself our flesh, our nature. From that moment humanity and God are joined in such a way that God is part of everything we do and everything we are. Everything: the joys and the sorrows, the hopes and the fears, the pain and the glory; everything apart from sin.

Jesus is given many names in the Scriptures and throughout history, but the one I love so much is to be found at the beginning of Saint Matthews’s gospel when the angel tells Joseph that “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and they will call him Emmanuel, a name which means God-is-with-us”. (Matthew 1.23). What a wonderful name; but how more magnificent is the reality! There is nowhere you can be where Jesus-Emmanuel is not with you. There is no situation that you can find yourself in where Jesus-Emmanuel is not present with you. Even in sickness, pain, whatever crisis you are facing, he is with you. He will never stop being Jesus-Emmanuel, God-with-us. We might forget him, turn away from him, even cease to believe in him, but he will never forget us, neither turn away from us, nor will he ever cease to believe in us. That is the fact of the Incarnation. That is the truth of the Christmas story. That is the reality that we are celebrating. Into the darkness, the sometimes emptiness and messiness of our lives Jesus-Emmanuel has been born and has become part of it all. His name really is God-is-with-us, now and always and, if you want, it can be forever and ever. And this is no fairy-tale ending. It is true.

And with these thoughts I wish you and yours and everyone the peace and joy of Christmas today and every day. And for us all I pray:

Father, today a new light has dawned upon the world: God has become one with humanity, and humanity has become one again with God. Your eternal Word has taken upon himself our human weakness giving our mortal nature immortal value. So marvellous is this oneness between God and humankind that in Christ the gift of everlasting life is restored to us. For this we thank you and we praise you in the great hymn the angels sang on that first Christmas: “Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to people of good will”. (Adapted from Preface of Christmas III, The Roman Missal of Pope Paul VI).

+ Terence Patrick

Bishop of Middlesbrough