The Twelve Days: A People of Hope
Image credit: Marcin Mazur/Clifton Diocese
God's love for all peoples
This series of reflections is published by kind permission of Clifton Diocese and Fr Christopher Whitehead, with photography by Marcin Mazur. It was commissioned originally as a series of podcasts and a booklet emerging from the Diocesan pastoral guidelines ‘Called to Be a People of Hope’, in which the Diocese ‘reflected upon Mary’s ‘yes’ and her hope that God’s promise to her would be fulfilled. It is Mary’s hope that bears fruit in the child to whom she gives birth, and it is Mary’s hope in a promise fulfilled that offers us hope that Christ will truly be Emmanuel, God-with-us.
‘Called to Be a People of Hope’ remind us: “Growing in our relationship with the Lord is the wellspring of our Christian life and so prayer and teaching others to pray is of fundamental importance… A relationship with Christ deepens our experience of daily living. In a world which is spiritually hungry we are called to help people see the connection between prayer and life, that God is in all things.”
‘The 12 Days’ draw us deeper in the mystery of God’s coming among us at Christmas and offers us the opportunity to reflect upon how we allow him to come into our world.
The Incarnation marks a new way of God communicating with his people. The child who reaches out to us from the manger speaks to us of God’s love for all peoples and the whole of creation. We are challenged to be that word of love and that word of joy for the men and women of our own generation. Our prayer around the crib leads us to go out, like the shepherds and the magi, bringing good news to those around us.’
Declan Lang, Bishop of Clifton
God enters our world
At the heart of this Christmas season lies the story of God entering into our world and into our lives in a new way. God’s Word takes on our flesh – he lowers himself to become one like us so that he might raise us up to become more like him.
The crib – that simple and uncomplicated retelling of the Gospel stories of the Nativity – reminds us of the joy and the hope that birth brings to a Mother and her husband, to those who are among the first to welcome the child, and to the world waiting for the Saviour. The long-awaited Christ enters our world, not making an entrance with trumpet blast, but through the birth, the cries, the laughter, even, of the tiny child of Bethlehem.
These twelve reflections, beautifully crafted by people from within our diocesan community, accompany us through the twelve days of Christmas – from the Nativity to the Epiphany. Their reflections are centred on the twelve figures that feature in the crib of our Cathedral in Clifton, Bristol. These beautiful figures, carved in the northern Italian town of Ortisei, have been used in our cathedral (and previously pro-cathedral) for so many years. Each figure has a story to tell, and each of the reflections draws us deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation through their eyes and their presence in the stable of Bethlehem.
We are invited to simply come close to the child who drew them in and drew them closer to the God who’s love he came to reveal. I hope these reflections allow you time to linger a little around the crib – at home, in church, in school, even – and appreciate in a deeper way the love, the joy, the peace this child came to bring.
It is thought we have St Francis to thank for the Christmas crib although the one he ‘created’ in the hill village of Greccio used real animals and real people. He wanted to replicate something of Bethlehem for the people he lived among, to draw them deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation. He wanted to play out before their eyes the story of the first Christmas night in Bethlehem where God touched our humanity with the gift of his Word made flesh, how the Son of God lay in the hay, kept warm by the breath of the ox and the donkey. From St Francis’ live crib in Greccio to the figures we use in our churches and homes today, the crib invites us personally into the moment of the Incarnation, the story of God becoming man. It is an opportunity to think of that story’s significance in our own lives.
Through the Christmas season the crib causes us to reflect upon the childhood of Christ as told by St Matthew and St Luke, and here in this simple manger scene, captured in one single event is the infant life of Christ. Although not represented, the crib looks back to the story of the Annunciation, hints at the journey to Bethlehem, drawing us into the visit of the Shepherds and the adoration of the Magi. We know that this must be only a resting place before this simple family takes up the road once more, this time to Egypt.
Some stables can be full, in fact there may be just enough room for the folk who drop into the story as well as the animals who found their home invaded, But I think there is always room for one more figure – us. We’re being invited to come close to the God who reaches out with hands like ours from among the straw of the manger. As the child reaches out, as if to be picked up, he offers us a real invitation. Do we dare come closer and even touch him, holding him close to us? Or do we remain at a safe distance as if a mere spectator? The hope of the stable of Bethlehem is that we will allow the Christ-child to touch our lives in as deep a way as he touched the shepherd and king. He invites us near so that he might make his home in the manger of our lives, dwelling at the centre, at the very hear and core of our being. The touch he seeks to offer us is one that heals and transforms, that warm and refashions, so that by seeing our God-made-flesh with our own eyes, we might grow to become like him because of the love that draws us deeper into communion with him.
As you gather round the crib this Christmas, may the child of Bethlehem touch you and those you love with his life giving gift of joy and peace.
Father Christopher Whitehead, Director of Adult Education and Evangelisation, Clifton Diocese