Over the Christmas period, all sorts of gatherings take place.
There are family gatherings and get-togethers with friends.
There may be nights out with work colleagues, special events for senior citizens, children’s parties and all sorts of other events.
A feature of these Christmas gatherings is that we often spend time with people we don’t see socially the rest of the year.
There may be visits from family members who live far away, or meals with colleagues we normally meet only at work.
We may be thrown together with different people to those in our usual social circle.
The Christmas story brings together some pretty unlikely people.
Mary and Joseph find themselves far from home in the stable of a crowded inn, thanks to the hospitality of a stressed and overworked innkeeper.
Then a bunch of shepherds turn up – odd visitors for a maternity unit, which is what the stable has by then become.
And to complete the party, a strange group of foreign travellers arrive with the weirdest set of baby presents anyone could imagine.
Only one thing unites this gathering of people from totally different walks of life.
It is a baby, wrapped in a few rags in a makeshift straw bed. This child represents God’s love and His welcome for all sorts of people from all kinds of backgrounds.
That’s why a carpenter and an innkeeper, a teenage girl, a bunch of shepherds and some stargazing travellers all belong together. The child in the manger unites them.
Recently, I’ve noticed the things which are growing and thriving in local churches are the events which bring people together.
In a lively community, we need the opportunity to meet neighbours and to begin or renew friendships.
We need occasions to eat together or work together for a shared purpose.
Digital communication, however useful, is no compensation for face-to-face gatherings.
The desire for that sense of community is reflected by numbers at afternoon teas for senior citizens and meals for those who are homeless.
It’s seen in Messy Church events, where families learn and play together and at locally-run concerts and entertainments. It creates the special atmosphere at carol services and school events. It brings people together in working to relieve need.
Communities need times and places to gather, which can include those of every age and background.
The Christmas message is of a God who loves us and cares for us, a God who welcomes us into His family and gathers us together.
As we celebrate Christmas, it is the baby in the manger who unites us, however different we may be in other ways.
When you next find yourself in a gathering of unlikely companions, make time to reflect what unites us is a child who turned out to be God with us. Have a very happy and peaceful Christmas.