Detail from Giotto's Nativity
Jesus gives us thought-provoking examples when he speaks about his hidden presence in the world. He is to be found visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. Being there – being present to people in need or distress – is what makes the difference. You can see this in some of the parables too. In the story of the Good Samaritan the priest and the Levite cross the road to avoid the victim: it is the Samaritan stranger who goes to his side and lifts him on his donkey and takes him to an inn.
Being physically there by drawing close to the poor, beaten up man – relating to him – this makes all the difference. The same is true when Jesus leaves the relative safety of Galilee to go to Jerusalem, then as now seething with tension. Jesus knew this was necessary. Going to Jerusalem brought home the seriousness of his message, even although it would mean going to the cross. He would have to be physically present in Jerusalem. Being there, among the people, made all the difference.
This and every Christmas we celebrate his presence among us. We see the light streaming from the stable. We hear the burst of the heavenly chorus. Then all falls still again. We will have to await his return as an adult. For now, however, the momentous step has been taken. He is here, he is among us.
The truth is, nothing else will do. We live in a world where there are many substitutes for being there. Conference calls and video conferencing. Skype. E-mails. Texts. Twitter and Facebook. But nothing, we know, matches the pleasure of looking up and seeing someone we love or admire coming through the door. For them to be here among us – their physical presence – makes all the difference.
A priest is deeply privileged to be able to celebrate the Eucharist. There are few words more moving, more deeply mysterious than the words of Our Lord that he repeats from the Last Supper: ‘This is my body.’ These words and the other words surrounding them in the Eucharistic prayer tell us that Christ is among us once more in and through the Mass. Yet this presence of Christ would not be possible without that first coming, when he was among us in the flesh. There must have been the usual infant noises coming from that stable at Bethlehem. Yet these simple sounds amount to a declaration from the Son of God: ‘This is my body.’ He is here, among us. He is present, and that presence will make all the difference.
For our sake, the Son of God leaped the greatest of gulfs, that which separates God and humankind. Think of the contrast. On the one hand there is God, existing before all ages, infinite, all-knowing, wise, loving. On the other hand, human beings, here for a time, frail and limited, occasionally foolish, sometimes loving, sometimes hating, learning by trial and error. Between us and the God of holiness there is an unimaginable distance. But that is precisely the point of incarnation.
God moves among us in Christ, he lives our life from within our skin, so to speak, and takes our life with all its sins on to the cross. He heals and forgives and carries us with him into the eternity from which he came. He is God here with us, Emmanuel, and that presence makes the greatest of differences by reaching over the greatest of divides. It enables all other understandings of his presence among us now. But it begins with his physical presence, which makes all the difference. He cared enough to come, to be here among us, so that in the journey of our life we might always know that he is at our side.
Fr Terry is Parish Priest at St Mary's in Finchley East, north London. Fr Terry's latest book: Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, on ICN's front page. To read Sr Gemma Simmonds' review on ICN see: http://www.indcatholicnews.com/news.php?viewStory=16114