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Christmas Service

A service for Christmas from Durham Cathedral. Canon Angela Tilby encounters the Angel of the North and reflects on the north east's industrial past.

'Surprised by an Angel' - A Service for Christmas Morning from Durham Cathedral

Canon Angela Tilby encounters the Angel of the North, the massive figure designed by Antony Gormley which dominates the main road and railway line through the North East. She reflects on the region's industrial past which has now largely disappeared and how the Angel has unexpectedly become a source of wonder and support, almost a place of pilgrimage. Angela journeys on to Durham Cathedral to contemplate the mystery of the Nativity of Jesus - how God sent his angel to surprise Mary and the shepherds with the news that the birth of a child would be how God meets us today and everyday in the struggle of human living.

With Canon David Kennedy and the Cathedral Consort of Singers directed by James Lancelot and accompanied by Francesca Massey singing seasonal music from Handel's Messiah and Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols.

Producer: Stephen Shipley.

43 minutes

Last on

Christmas Day 2016 09:00



Please note:

This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.

It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events.

Radio 4 Opening Announcement:
BBC Radio 4.  Now it’s time for the Christmas Service – ‘Surprised by an Angel.’  We join Canon Angela Tilby by a busy roadside in the North East of England where she is listening to the Durham Cathedral Consort of Singers singing John Bell’s carol ‘God’s Surprise.’

Carol: God’s Surprise (John Bell)

Angela with Angel from car or train – description on the move
‘God surprises earth and heaven, coming here on Christmas Day’. You join me on the A1 just north of Birtley in Tyne and Wear. I’ve come here to catch a glimpse of the Angel of the North. This massive steel sculpture was created by Antony Gormley and installed here in 1998. It is 66 feet high, 177 feet across, and it stands on 600 tons of buried concrete.
And there it is – on this (describe day) standing out on the hillside – a fleeting glimpse as I pass. The Angel of the North is startling, but at the same time it carries a message of consolation.  And that mixture of surprise and consolation runs through the Christmas story – think of the surprise of the angels who appeared to the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem. It was bewildering for them, as it was for Mary and Joseph and the wise men to be caught up in God’s intervention into the human story. Into all the bewilderment comes good news, a birth, an unforeseen new beginning, unimagined glory breaking in.
Carol: Angels from the realms of glory

Angela – underneath the angel – description
I’m now standing right under the Angel of the North. I am just about as tall as its feet and I have to gaze up. I can just about see from here that the wings don’t come straight out, they are angled inward so that it looks as though it is embracing the landscape. When I first came here shortly after it was built I saw a young mum with a baby in a pram and a toddler in a pink anorak and they all ran towards the angel and just laughed and gazed and pointed in delight. Their joy and surprise was lovely to see. The angel, secular though it is, conveys a sense of blessing, suggesting that there really is an endless resource of divine compassion rooted at the heart of the human world. Antony Gormley intended that it should speak to the past, present and future.
A more ancient physical structure near here also speaks also of divine compassion and divine majesty: the great Cathedral at Durham where we now join David Kennedy.
David Kennedy
Good morning and a very happy Christmas…..
Angela: Reflection on the PAST
The whole landscape surrounding the Angel of the North is now predominantly green. It was not always so.  In the past it was marked by human labour; the ingenuity of the machine, the transformation of raw materials into heat and energy and power.  The angel is raised over an old coalmine – its base buried deep into the earth. Antony Gormley intended that it should be a fitting tribute to those who toiled underground here for over two hundred years. So it stands, like and so utterly unlike those Victorian marble angels who mark the graves of the departed in leafy cemeteries. The reinforced steel form of the angel was constructed in Hartlepool, an ancient port and once a centre of the shipbuilding industry.
The industrial past which absorbed so many lives and skills and energies is now largely vanished. The angel reminds us of the communities of people who so loyally supported one each other through the past, and still do.
There is a place for remembering and mourning the past. God is present not only in the good bits of life, but also in the sorrows and bereavements and griefs. But God does not let the past go to waste.
Memory is the seed of the future and we can see that in the Christmas story. The history of Israel was full of hopes that often went unfulfilled and disappointed. The prophets constantly called people to remember the promises of God, to get their lives in order to prepare the way for salvation. Jesus was the child of promise and prophecy and his coming into the world was proclaimed as the fulfillment of humanity’s deepest dreams.

As we reflect once again on the Christmas story we listen to Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols – a piece which weaves together familiar Christmas music to create a tapestry of texts, and sounds and memories.  
Music: Fantasia on Christmas Carols (Vaughan Williams) – part 1

Reading (AV): The Annunciation – Luke 1
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her and said, ‘Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women’. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, ‘Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name, Jesus.’

Carol: Angelus ad Virginem (medieval arr. Willcocks)

Music: Fantasia on Christmas Carols – part 2 
Angela: Reflection on the PRESENT
There’s a wonderful picture on the Angel of the North website which shows a young couple together under its wings. She is leaping into his arms – her feet of the ground, their faces contorted with happiness and in utter delight in one another. One of the wonderful things about being human is how our lives are transformed by moments of sheer unexpected joy. There are surprises all around us all the time and the best of them bring us new opportunities and fulfillment. The Angel of the North shadows and shelters the landscape; turning gold with the sun and dark against the horizon. It suggests than the past is not lost here; but that the present time has more in it than memories. Antony Gormley intended the angel to mark the fact that the present time is not just a continuation of the past, but an age of transition. The age of heavy industry has passed away and we now live in an age of information. Half a century ago we could have no idea how the internet would change our lives, and how transforming that has been. Not all good, of course, but much has been good in terms of creativity, speed, contact. Just think of the numbers of people who will in touch by Skype this Christmas. Angels are all about communication; they come from heaven to earth, they travel from the future and guard the present moment. This angel does not just memorialize the past. It calls from the future and holds the future open. Over the years it has become a source or pride to the neighbourhood, even a place of pilgrimage. In a society where traditional church life speaks to few this red steel angel represents mystery and potential. People experience themselves in a new way in this astonishing landscape, supported in the shadow of its mighty steel wings. Just as the angel brings hope out of loss to this region; so the angels of Christ’s coming speak to those who are overburdened and anxious.
Music: Recit and Chorus (Messiah)

You can’t help wondering what it was like to be a shepherd on the hillside when the angels appeared singing ‘Gloria’. In the Christmas story the birth of the baby Jesus was something quite new and unexpected. Nobody would have thought that a tiny baby could contain the infinite God. God being born as a child connects with our deepest human instinct for survival and renewal and new life. The present is pregnant. The present is where God meets us today and everyday in the ordinary struggle of human living. In one of my favourite films, Kung Fu Panda, the wise old turtle Oogway says to his disciple, Shifu, who is terribly troubled about the future: yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift. That’s why they call it present. 
Music: Fantasia on Christmas Carols – part 3

Angela: Reflection on the FUTURE
The Angel of the North can be seen from many angles. It changes as the light changes challenging you to contemplate what might lie ahead. This Christmas 2016 is a strange time in the life of this area, our nation and our world. It was not far from here, on the night of the 22nd June, that the referendum results from Sunderland and Newcastle gave the first indications that the vote would be won for Brexit. Some have interpreted that vote as a rejection of the status quo, a cry of discontent from those who feel that globalization has passed them by, leaving them left out and marginalized.
The year ahead is full of uncertainty. Many from Africa and the Middle East are still desperate to find security and hope by seeking refuge in Europe. There is potential aggression in the Pacific, in Ukraine and the Baltic, and economic disaster in parts of Africa, South America and Asia. It is a dangerous time, but like all times of crisis, it is also a time of promise and opportunity if we hold fast to the mercy and truth of God. At such a time, faith is a better guide than certainty.
Jesus did not come into the world to receive people’s adoration. He was not born into privilege, he did not stand for election. But he did grow up with a divine vocation to announce God’s kingdom and to challenge and change his world; showing by his parables and healings what God’s kingdom was like. Christ came, as Mary’s Magnificat puts it, to ‘cast down the mighty from their seat and to exalt the humble and meek.’ His innocence shames those who seek power without responsibility and gives hope to those who persevere in doing good, in living with grace even under pressure. The astonishing truth at the heart of Christmas is that God is with us, dwelling among us, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Reading (AV): The Incarnation – John 1
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. He was in the world and the world was made by him. and the world knew him not. He came unto his own and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

Carol: The Shepherds’ Farewell (Berlioz)

So as the shepherds return to their hillside we leave the Angel of the North and gather our Christmas prayers together in the shelter of Durham Cathedral.

David Kennedy
We pray for our world, giving thanks for Christ’s coming and for God’s care for the whole human family.

To you, O Christ, Word of the Father,
we offer our lowly prayers and humble thanks:
for love of our human race
you most wonderfully chose to be born of Mary
and to take our nature as never more to lay it by;
so that we might be born again by your Spirit
and restored in the image of God;
to whom, one blessed Trinity, be given all honour;
might, majesty and power, now and for ever.  Amen.
May Christ who by his incarnation gathered into one things earthly and heavenly fill you with joy and peace, and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen. 

Carol: O come all ye faithful (arr. Willcocks)

Organ Voluntary: In dir ist Freude BWV 615 (Bach)