God’s presence this Christmas matters more than presents – Bishop Marcus Stock

“I WILL honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.”

So says the repentant Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol after his own past, present and potential future are revealed to him one Christmas night in a series of strange dreams.

He is saved by the Spirit of Christmas. No longer self- isolating from his family, socially-distant from his fellow man, and shielding his face from the plight of the poor, he becomes the very soul of festive charity and cheer.

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Although many think this is just a Victorian ghost story, its true meaning and moral – like most Christmas carols – is relevant now and for all time.

'This year especially may be less about Christmas presents and more about Christmas presence,' says Marcus Stock, Bishop of Leeds, in his Christmas message.

The Catholic writer GK Chesterton believed and hoped that simply by keeping Christmas with gifts and traditions, people of all faiths and none would, like Scrooge, “someday suddenly wake up and discover why”.

The first Christmas happened in the distant past, but we celebrate it still because that Holy Child born While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks one Silent Night in the Little Town of Bethlehem is, as the carols tell us, ‘born in us today’. Not only in our churches, and in the prisons, mines and poor-houses shown to Scrooge, but in the communities, schools, homes, and ‘bubbles’ of our own time, most of us in some way still keep Christmas as a Holy Day – or a holiday – that this year just cannot come soon enough.

Scrooge’s nightmares might resonate with all of us who, over the past year, have endured a frightening present and faced an uncertain future. After long, lonely months of lockdowns, we remember Christmases in our own past: homes and arms open to welcome family and friends.

But even with the advent of a saving vaccine, the pandemic is far from over. Paradoxically, it may be that in trying to recreate Christmases Past, marking the birth of a life-giving Saviour in the way our families have always done could now actually threaten our future, our health, our livelihoods and the very lives of those we love.

Right Reverend Marcus Stock is Bishop of Leeds.

For Christians, Christmas doesn’t come until Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Currently, we are still in the Season of Advent: a time of waiting, anticipation and even impatience for the coming Feast. Neither is our Christmas over by Boxing Day. We know from the song, that there are Twelve Days of Christmas; the celebrations, feasting and giving continue until Twelfth Night on January 6, when we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany: the Wise Men’s arrival with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Those rare and precious presents brought to the Child lying in a lowly cattle shed are the source of our own tradition of Christmas gift-giving. Whether the gesture be grand or simple, like the Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner, its value is measured in love.

This year especially may be less about Christmas presents and more about Christmas presence. ‘Social’ distancing would be better-named ‘physical’ distancing, as social contact without physical proximity will be even more vital this Christmas.

During the past months, we have become adept at showing love and support from a distance, knowing loved ones are there for us, even if unable to visit them in person. Through our ‘virtual visits’ we can hear their voices – and even see their faces – across the miles. Being ‘really present’ to one another need not involve being in the same room – nor even in the same country.

The Child Jesus depicted in Christmas cards and cribs is shown with arms open, reaching out to embrace us across two millennia. He is God’s Gift to all the world for all time – not just then, but now and for ever. The Advent Carol O come, O come, Emmanuel uses the Hebrew title meaning ‘God-With-Us’; an ever-present Christmas present, with us in Spirit and, as old Mr Scrooge discovered, in the poor, the sick, the lonely and the vulnerable.

So to honour Christmas in our hearts, we only need to accept the Christmas gift that keeps on giving: that God so loved the world that he gave us His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him and proves it by truly loving and caring for others, especially those in need, may not be lost, but have eternal life – an everlasting ‘Christmas Yet to Come’.

Wherever and however we spend Christmas this year, we will all have that unseen Guest and Guide by our side; not a ghost but a Real Presence who forgives our past, offers us a future with Him and who keeps us in His love – all the year. May God bless you, every one!

Right Reverend Marcus Stock 
is Bishop of Leeds.

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