By Catherine Skinner
A good friend introduced me to this beautiful picture a few weeks ago, and I love it! There is so much to enjoy in it, whether it is the sumptuous crimson blanket; the look of puzzlement on the bullock’s face; or the reversal of roles as usually portrayed - Mary reading a book and Joseph in charge of child care. Then there is the donkey irreverently nibbling Joseph’s halo – the illustration makes me smile every time I look at it.
As a farmer’s daughter I cannot help but notice that the stall is far too clean and tidy, but that doesn’t detract from the picture’s overall message of companionship – in creation, in each other, and in Christ Himself. The figures - human and animal – are all relaxed, living fully in the miraculous moment of Christ’s arrival on earth. Joseph’s adoration for the new baby is written all over his face, while Mary is immersed in her book – perhaps checking Old Testament references to the coming Messiah?
What does it mean to live in companionship with God? The picture might give us a welcome reminder of the warmth of such a relationship, but there is also another element to it. A good companion can also challenge us, ask an awkward question, make us think again -perhaps even pull us into line when needed. The key is a trust in each other, which then leads to the bringing out of the best in each other. So it is with God – if we allow Him to be our companion, we can look forward to an ever - increasingly rich friendship, which can bring us closer to becoming the person He meant us to be.
I find that it is possible to carry this sense of companionship with God into everyday life. It teaches me to recognise God at work in all that I might encounter, whether it is in the joy of the natural world continuing to offer us hope in a year fraught with struggle; or a moment of spontaneous laughter shared with another; or the support of a friend or skilled professional when we meet difficulty. It also teaches me to be alert to moments when God is asking something of me – whether in a practical or prayerful way, or perhaps a need in me to forgive someone for a hurt they have caused – to me, to someone I love, or to the world as a whole. Such companionship also grants me the freedom to recognise and accept my own failings and wrongdoings – all firm in the knowledge that I am fully accepted and loved by God.
As this 15th century picture reminds us so very clearly, one of the liberating messages of Christ’s coming to earth is that God is with us always - here in the ordinariness of life, just as He was in the stable all those years ago. It doesn’t matter that we don’t think we are ready to receive Him – that our lives are not in as good order as we would like, and we ourselves are perhaps a bit of a mess. Or we are not ready because we are happy just as we are and don’t need Him; or because we simply don’t have the time to meet Him. If despite all this we can let go - maybe just for a moment - of our worries, our distractions, our good intentions, our egos, - and let Him into our lives, we can be encouraged, fortified, and liberated by this promise of a living companionship with God.
This prayer expresses some of that message well:
‘Thank you, Lord, for letting me live my life in companionship with you. Keep me safe today from spiritual and physical dangers. I do not know your plans for me, but I trust you completely and am content to take what you give. With your firm support I am prepared for whatever happens today. You have many surprises for those who follow you, but I know that all things work together for the good of those who trust you. So Lord keep your flame of love burning in my heart and guide me safely today.’