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Gerald O'CollinsDecember 22, 2022
"Nativity," by Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, second half of 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 1988 issue of America as “Emmanuel.”

Some years ago, a friend of mine was complaining about what he took to be the decline and fall of Roman Catholicism in France. His voice faltered, and he summed things up: “The French went in for Catholic Action. Then they pushed the line of témoignage, or witness. Now they are satisfied with mere presence.”

At the time I wondered whether my friend was right in being disenchanted with the move from action to witness and from witness to presence. I put it to myself this way: “When I come to die, no one will be able to do anything for me, and 1 won’t want anyone preaching to me. But I will certainly be reassured by the presence of a close relative or some other person I love dearly.”

We live in God’s heart, and Christmas visibly brought among us the Son of God who cares infinitely for each of us.

Nowadays I wonder whether, inadvertently, my friend had stumbled on a good way of expressing the move from creation, through the history of Israel and down to the birth of Jesus Himself. God acted in creation. Moses and the prophets were called to give witness to the people. But Jesus Christ was God’s personal presence among us. In his infancy narrative, Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:25). The prologue of John’s Gospel climaxes with the announcement: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). This presence came about through the free love of God: “In this way the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him” (1 Jn 4:9).

Thinking of the Christmas message in terms of a new divine presence carries several advantages. First, we are moving in the area of something we look for every day of our lives—the personal presence of those whom we care for and who care about us. We cannot endure to leave friendship and love at a distance. Photographs, memories, letters and even phone calls are not enough. We want to enjoy the personal presence of those who fill our minds and let us live in their hearts. We live in God’s heart, and Christmas visibly brought among us the Son of God who cares infinitely for each of us. God did not want to live that love at a distance. God gave us and gives us God’s personal presence, that most precious gift of those who care for us.

Second, the theme of divine presence has at least a small advantage over some of the other language we use and hear in our worship at Christmas. The reading for the Mass at dawn, for example, recalls the birth of Jesus as the time “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared” (Titus 3:4). Beyond doubt, this language of “appearance” indicates the divine good will toward human beings. All the same, there is a direct sense of personal relationship communicated by the name “Emmanuel.” God is no longer merely “for us” but now “with us.” The Word has come to dwell “among us.” This presence had initiated a new relationship between the human race and our God. As never before, God is with us and personally related to us.

Third, a personal presence, whether human or divine, always has something mysterious about it. We appreciate the qualitative difference between the mere physical nearness of other people on a crowded bus and the supportive presence of a friend at a time of crisis. We are dealing here with something that is utterly real and yet quite difficult to understand and interpret. “Presence” and various kinds of presence can seem a straightforward matter, but on analysis they remain mysteriously elusive. This may partly account for the fact that over the centuries Western philosophy has failed to reflect very much on this notion. Apart from Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973) and a few others, philosophers have largely left alone the idea and reality of presence and personal presence.

The Christmas message means not only Jesus Himself in the arms of Mary but also His presence in the arms of those who carry our suffering brothers and sisters.

To speak of the Son of God coming “among us” to live “with us” sounds like simple talk. But we have little help here from the philosophers, and in any case this belief points to a unique mystery, the qualitatively new, personal presence of God in our world.

Fourth, as Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” noted, Christ’s personal presence takes different forms (No. 7). This 1963 document naturally addressed itself to the variety of ways Christ becomes present in worship and left it at that. But the link between liturgy and life suggests looking also to the many other forms of Christ’s presence around us. In a special way. the poor and oppressed bring us His presence. The Child in the manger shows us His face in a thousand needy victims of our world. The Christmas message means not only Jesus Himself in the arms of Mary but also His presence in the arms of those who carry our suffering brothers and sisters.

I do not know whether my friend feels happier now about the state of French Catholicism. But I remain grateful for the language he offered me. In our human history, we find God in action. We hear the prophetic witness given us through the inspired Scriptures and inspired speakers. But at Christmas we can rejoice in a uniquely rich and mysterious gift, the new personal presence of “God with us.”

Christmas shows us that we contact God not only through what we see and hear, but also through what we touch. We can see God acting in history. We can open our ears to hear the divine message to us. But we can also reach out and touch the Son of God, now mysteriously but truly present among us in a rich range of new ways.

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