Last week one of my friends asked me what I would like for Christmas. ‘Nothing’, was my immediate response. ‘I just want to spend time with community and friends and family. And that’s what I’ll be doing, simply ‘being with’.
‘Being with’ others in joy or sorrow or in the humdrum of life is probably the best gift we can offer and the best gift we can receive. It is not always possible to be present in person and, thankfully, true friends know that ‘being with’ is not restricted to physical presence.
There is a sense in which those we love are always with us and we are always with them in spirit, even when the demands of life and our work or ministry choices separate us geographically. Real friends are ‘with us’ even in our absence and ‘being with’ in spirit or in person is closely allied with ‘being for’.
Today’s gospel affirms ‘being with’ as God’s Christmas gift to us. The first chapter of Matthew’s gospel tells us that the expected child Messiah or Christ-child is ‘God-with-us’, Emmanuel. The gospel will conclude with the assurance of the resurrected Christ, ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matt 28:20). As we celebrate the successive liturgical seasons in the coming year, we shall have the opportunity to enter into Matthew’s story of God-with-us in the person of Jesus and to live out the pattern of that story more fully in our own lives.
There is no angelic annunciation to Mary in Matthew’s gospel, no expectant mothers’ embrace. There is no inn or innkeeper, no shepherds or shepherds’ fields. These are all features of Luke’s tableau. Matthew brings different features and different characters to centre stage. Chief among them is Joseph who receives God’s revelation in a series of dreams. If we try to harmonise the different gospel accounts of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, we may lose some of the wondrous mystery of the feast we celebrate. If we simply attend to the awesome truth that God is with us, then we might be more attentive to how we are with one another.