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This year we attended a Christmas service at the church my sister and her family attend. The church was full. The minister smiled a lot. We sang carols and listened to readings. A young woman played her guitar and sang beautifully. Children came to the front with their presents. And so it went on. But the true spirit of Christmas was not on the platform at the front of the church. It was several rows behind us where a woman in her forties sat holding her disabled three-year-old daughter.

I knew that mother when she was a little girl because she went to school with my sister. I used to meet them and walk them home from school when I was on leave. I remember her as a pretty, very happy, but slightly shy girl. It must have been quite a shock when she became a mother to find that her child was so badly disabled. Her husband used their daughter as an excuse to leave his wife, saying that he could not cope. So she coped alone. Now her whole life revolves around a three-year-old who has little movement, has to be carried everywhere and will spend her entire life as little more than a baby.

When I spoke to the mother after the service the first thing she did was turn her daughter’s face and try to open her eyes so she could see me. She talked to her daughter as if she was like any other child of that age, introducing me as her friend’s big brother. I cannot begin to describe the love I saw expressed by that mother for her child, despite the very evident strain of caring for her daughter. For me it overshadowed everything else on Christmas morning, when we are supposed to remember the gift of God’s son Jesus Christ. Somehow it seems that we do not share the sense of awe expressed by the Bethlehem shepherds, by the stargazing Magi, or by Simeon and Anna in the Temple. My sense of awe was restored in part this Christmas morning by the example of another mother and her child. When I realise that this mother’s love is but a tiny fraction of the love God expressed for mankind through Jesus, then I find myself transported to a stable in Bethlehem to worship Him.

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