Now abiding


‘God with us’, that is, from the lyrics of ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’, one of my favourite carols (with a tiny bit of poetic licence, since abiding is a much nicer word than residing).  This Christmas, I have been struck many times by the word Emmanuel, one of the names applied to Jesus, which means (or so I’m told, not speaking any of the languages that were spoken at the time of His life) ‘God with us’.  For me, this is the central mystery and magic of Christmas, generally a magical and wonderful time anyway.

Christmas seems to be a time when the important things get overwhelmed by the details and the window dressing, for Christian believers and secular celebrants alike.  Making sure we have the right number of sprouts, the right type of crackers and decorations that fit a colour scheme becomes more important than spending time with the people we love.  People send cards to people they don’t like because they feel they ought to, and buy presents at the last minute for Fred in the office who got them a gift, without putting any thought into it. 

A gift given without any thought, without truly considering the person who will receive it, is meaningless.  And there are better ways of showing you love someone than over-spending on your credit card.  Kind words and actions, listening and being there when you’re needed are so much more important.  I wish I knew how we could achieve this, to let the most important thing be the time we spend with those we love, and the love that we share, rather than the time we spend preparing for a supposedly perfect Christmas.

And it’s the same with the religious aspects of Christmas.  The angels and shepherds, the journey to Bethlehem and the wise men from the East are exciting, but they’re ultimately window-dressing.  And as for the animals!  I like animals, but when we get all mushy over the sheep, the camels and the blasted donkey, they tend to overshadow everything else.  Window dressing with fur and hooves.  Even the cuteness factor of ‘the baby Jesus’ can get in the way.  Again, babies are great, but they’re also noisy, smelly and time-consuming, all of which we conveniently forget when we picture Jesus in his wonderfully clean and oddly odour-free manger, strangely devoid of the overpowering smell that accompanies such places in the real world.

Many of those aspects of the Christmas narrative which we know and love, and hear endlessly over these weeks, are important to the Christian faith, but I mentioned in an earlier post that the narrative of Christmas can obscure the meaning of Christmas.  We watch the shepherds scurry, we coo over Jesus and his animal friends, we listen to the angels singing and we hiss and boo at the mention of Herod, but we miss those all-important words ‘God with us’.  This is why I value the midnight communion over every other moment of religious observance over Christmas, as it gives a quiet time to reflect on and react to this wonderful mystery at the heart of my faith.  God with us.  Whether as a baby, as a man, or in a less tangible way, this truly inspires awe, that God should be anything other than a remote observer, that he should be sufficiently concerned and involved with us to get down here, get dirty, tired and stressed, suffer emotionally and physically and ultimately die.  In the words of ‘O Holy Night’, a traditional song which I most definitely approve of:

The king of kings lay thus in lowly manger
In all our trials born to be our friend
He knows our need
To our weakness no stranger
Behold your king!

King or child, with or without the donkey, the sprouts, the tinsel and the stressed postmen, that is for me the most important aspect of the religious side of Christmas.  God with us is now residing.

  1. Brilliantly put. I have never been to a Midnight Communion service, but I find that the Advent carol service helps me to reflect on the mystery of ‘God with us’. I do sometimes find myself in danger of getting too excited about the music and not thinking enough about what is actually being sung, though.

    Hope you’re having a good holiday and enjoying the Christmas season.

  2. Thank you for a beautiful post. I have read so many thousands of things over the years about Christmas, the meaning of the symbols, etc etc. Your post, of all that I have read, is beautiful and thoughtful and meaningful. I wanted to say brilliant but Lilian already took it. Anyway, I came away from reading this feeling certain that you have a quiet, firm faith and are well aware of the true meaning and beauty of Christ’s life. I feel privileged that you have shared this with me.

  3. I wasn’t at all sure whether to post this at all, as I know that religion tends to be one of the most controversial things to write about on the internet, so thank you both for your kind words. My faith is often quiet, but it is very important to me.

  4. “but we miss those all-important words ‘God with us’. “

    As an ex-catholic I later on came to understand and appreciate the birth of Jesus in a metaphorical way, as the birth of compassion in the world. And I’m quite happy with that concept and don’t mind the religious symbols and all that, even though I’m no longer religious.

    As for expressing one’s religious views in public, well, that probably does require a certain degree of trust (since people can quite often take things the wrong way). But in the immortal words of John Lennon … whatever gets you through the night is alright. 🙂

    Thanks for trusting us, David. And a very happy new year to you!

  1. November 28th, 2010

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