The Rt Revd Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham. Auckland Castle (Picture Keith Blundy)

I love being with people at this Christmas season. Let me give you some examples. I have always loved a school nativity or carol event; there tends to be such delight and pride in performing touched with real recognition that the birth of this baby, so long ago, is truly special for us all. Each year I try and get to at least one community lunch to celebrate the season with people of all ages. These are always enormous fun; the joy of being with others, enjoying food and drink, wearing party hats and enjoying a good sing all make them incredibly worthwhile. Then every Christmas morning I join the residents of Durham Prison for their Christmas morning worship. Prison is not where anyone really wants to be on Christmas Day but this service offers time to be together and to think for a short while just what Christmas is all about at its heart. The singing is always robust, if not always deeply tuneful. I simply love being with people at Christmas. Then there is the particular love of being with family. This becomes ever more complex as they grow up, marry and have to join with different bits of family – but somehow we always manage to be with each other for some time; it is a delight.

We all know that this is not the case for everyone; many people find themselves alone, not with anyone, on Christmas Day, and often other days around it. The TV and the radio become important companions for many; radio phone-ins offer companionship and comfort. Churches (and other community organisations) arrange Christmas Day lunches to offer people the chance not to be alone at least for a few hours at this festive season. There is a genuine desire around that for all who want to be with others opportunities to do so are found. I applaud and salute all who work hard to make such events happen – and go with such great joy.

As people we are social beings; being with others and others being with us is part of our core humanity. I think this is why one of my favourite phrases from the Christmas readings in the Bible is that which Matthew records; ‘He shall be called Immanuel’ which means God with us.’ This is such a powerful statement – God with us. God with Joseph in all his confusion about discovering his fiancée was pregnant and he knew he was not responsible. God with Mary coping with being asked to carry a child before marriage in a society that could choose to stone her to death for this. God with shepherds just doing their job. God with the community of Bethlehem coping with a huge influx of visitors because of the occupying Romans. God with Herod, though choosing to try and remove God rather than welcome him. God present in a baby who cries, needs changing, feeds from his mother, grows and develops like other children. God with us in all our ordinariness and mess. God with us in all our abilities.

This remains the wonder of Christmas for me. This is not simply a delightful story to retell in imaginative ways every year in a Nativity play. This is not simply a festival in which to enjoy lots of good food and drink in the company of others. This is the time to remember that God is with us. So often we do not recognise God’s loving presence in our lives. God gives us breath and life. God is alongside us in our loneliness as the friend above all other friends. God is with us in our deepest sorrows and troubles, through the kindness of others; through the inner strength, we discover. God is with us.

This Christmas, however, we celebrate it, may we all have others to be with at least for some while. Let us be good friends, neighbours, community members and family members to and for one another. Let us be with one another. As we do so may we all rejoice that in Jesus God is with us – not just at Christmas but every day of the year.

Wishing You All a Very Happy Christmas

+Paul