Christmas on the Edge
A reflection on those parts of the Christmas story that take place out on the edge, and bring those who have been marginalised back in to the centre and heart of God's own story.
From the Chapel of Girton College, Cambridge.
The Reverend Dr Malcolm Guite explores those parts of the Christmas story that take place, not in the centre of power, in places like Rome or Jerusalem, but out on the edge, by the fields of Bethlehem and in a stable, and how they bring those who have been marginalised and left out back in to the centre and heart of God’s own story. The College’s Visitor, The Right Honourable, The Baroness Hale of Richmond reflects on how Girton too, a place built ‘on the edge’ has worked and continues to work to include the excluded. The chapel choir and congregation join together to sing seasonal hymns including 'Infant holy, infant lowly', and 'Jesus, good above all other'. Director of Music: Gareth Wilson. Producer: Ben Collingwood.
CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Infant Holy (W Zlobie Lezy) MALCOLM:Good morning, and welcome to the chapel of Girton College, Cambridge in this Christmas season, where we’re celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the foundation of the College. As we keep Christmas, we remember how the College was founded to include the excluded, to bring in those who had been kept out. Today our college, originally established to give women a chance at higher education, has expanded to include both men and women, and still seeks, in the spirit of its founder, to reach out to groups in society who are not fully represented in higher education, to give them the confidence to apply to Cambridge, and to welcome and support them when they arrive. And so our service this morning focuses on the way the Christmas story itself brings those who have been edged out back into the centre of God’s story.
This setting of Silent Night was composed by Elizabeth Croad, a young composer whose music has featured at Girton chapel on numerous occasions over the past three years.
CHOIR: ANTHEM - Silent Night (Libby Croad)
MALCOLM:Let us pray.
God our Father,in love you sent your Sonthat the world may have life:lead us to seek him among the outcastand to find him in those in need,for Jesus Christ’s sake.Amen.
The readings this morning tell both the outer story of how God was born for us at this time, and also reveal something of its inner meaning. We pray that these comforting and familiar words may also be made fresh for us, and speak directly into our own time and place. St Luke’s gospel has a special emphasis on those who have been forced out on to the edge, those for whom there has been found no room. Here Luke tells how Jesus himself was born amongst those on the edge, and that for him too there was no place at the inn.
THE MISTRESS (READING): Luke 2:1-7 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
MALCOLM: When I came to write the Christmas sonnet for a collection of my own sonnets I was assembling for the Christian year, I found myself drawn to what I can only call the edginess of that Christmas story. Christ is not born in a great centre like Rome or Jerusalem but in a small town, and even there he was pushed out to an edge, to the end of the line, the last resort, to the stable and a manger. And yet, as I came to write the poem, I saw that God has made those ends and edges into a new centre, a new beginning: and my poem ends with a glance from the cradle in Bethlehem to the empty tomb in Jerusalem, a new source, and a new start for all humanity.
VICE-MISTRESS: Christmas On The EdgeChristmas sets the centre on the edge;The edge of town, out-buildings of an inn,The fringe of empire, far from privilege And power, on the edge and outer spinOf turning worlds, a margin of small starsThat edge a galaxy itself light yearsFrom some unguessed-at cosmic origin.
Christmas sets the centre at the edge.And from this day our world is re-aligned;A tiny seed unfolding in the wombBecomes the source from which we all unfoldAnd flower into being. We are healed,The End begins, the tomb becomes a womb,For now in him all things are re-aligned.
MALCOLM:Baroness Hale, the college visitor, reflects on Girton’s role as a place of inclusion and empowerment.
BARONESS HALE:TEXT TBC
CHOIR/ORGAN/ALL: HYMN: Jesus, Good Above All Other (Quem pastores)
MALCOLM:A wall is always a powerful symbol. We have recently remembered the fall of the Berlin Wall, and yet we live in a time when in some places new walls are being built between divided communities. In his letter to the young church at Ephesus Paul encourages this new community, made up of both Jews and Gentiles, to come together and include one another, for Christ has broken down the walls that divide them.
WILHELM (READING): Ephesians 2:11-22 So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.
MALCOLM:Our next anthem Bogoroditse Devo is Rachmaninov's setting of the words Gabriel spoke to Mary, whose courageous ‘yes’ to God allowed the Christmas story to begin: ‘Rejoice, virgin mother of God…the Lord is with you…you have borne the Saviour of our souls’.CHOIR: Bogoroditse Devo (Rachmaninov)
Rejoice, virgin mother of God,Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.Blessed are you among women,and blessed is the fruit of your womb,for you have borne the Saviour of our souls.
MALCOLM:‘Because there was no place for them...’
These words from Luke’s gospel can resonate with us in so many ways. There is the drama of the immediate story as Luke tells it, and our empathy for a young mother whose time has come and for whom no place is found. There is the wider, deeper, indeed cosmic resonance of the story: that here the maker and the saviour of all finds there is no place for him on earth even as he comes to make a place for us in Heaven. John’s Gospel which so often gives the inner meaning of all these outward stories, sums it up in a single phrase: ‘He came unto his own and his own received him not’. And then, folded into the Bible story and its wider meanings as we read it now, are all the images that must run through our minds of the many people, in our own time, and even on our own streets for whom no place has been found: from the single mothers farmed out into a succession of shoddy hostels and B&Bs to the shivering figures curled in doorways under dirty blankets in all our major cities.
And yet, embedded in this tale of rejection is another story of acceptance and welcome. There was no place for them at the Inn, but some anonymous servant in that Inn thought of and found and offered them the stable and the manger.Someone did the best they could within their sad constraints. And then, as the story goes on, that place of last resort on the very edge of things, the edge of possibility, became itself the centre of glory, the place round which the angels radiated and sang in shining rings, the place where shepherds, outcasts themselves, would be welcomed, the place where even kings would kneel and recognise a glory greater than their own. As GK Chesterton put it in his striking poem The House of Christmas:
There fared a mother driven forthOut of an inn to roam;In the place where she was homelessAll men are at home.The crazy stable close at hand,With shaking timber and shifting sand,Grew a stronger thing to abide and standThan the square stones of Rome.
That phrase ‘Because there was no place for them’ has a particular resonance for us here at Girton as we look back on our 150 year history. When this college was founded in 1869 there was no place for women in Cambridge, indeed no place for women in higher education. Emily Davies, our foundress, the daughter of a Gateshead vicar, knew this Christmas story as well as any of us, and perhaps she has something in common with the anonymous servant of a Bethlehem Inn who thought, ‘If we can’t find a room for you in the Inn, perhaps we can make a place for you in the stable. Then we’ll take it from there, who knows, things may change’. For she had the courage, and foresight to find and make a place for the placeless, to include the excluded. Women were in every way pushed out on to the edge of things, and it was on the edge of Cambridge that she built her college. But she did so in the confidence that the geographical edge could soon become the intellectual centre, and so it proved to be. Amongst the Girton Pioneers, the first five women to study here, there were those who passed exams with the highest honours.
When that baby in the manger grew up, he carried a message with the word Inclusion watermarked into every page. From the story of the Good Samaritan, to the unexpected welcome given to the thief on the cross, Jesus embodied God’s welcome even to the people who most rejected him. And when he died for the world he loved, and rose again to bring humanity through the grave and gate of death and to make a place for us in heaven, he unleashed on the world a movement that carried the good news of this inclusion to the furthest corners of the earth.
We see the impact of that movement and its teaching about Christ in our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.”‘You who were once far off have been brought near’!
Paul was referring specifically to the way the racial divide between Jews and Gentiles had been bridged, but those words of his really sum up the impact of Christmas itself. Many of us will have been on the road over this season because, having been far off, we wanted to be near our loved ones and families, at least for Christmas. And many people going through bereavement will be desperately missing a loved one at this time of year, and yet feeling that Christmas itself and the song of the angels brings those in Heaven a little nearer.
And perhaps there’s something more. Sometimes the person we are most far off from, the person who needs to be brought near, brought home again, is ourselves. In Phillip Larkin’s phrase:‘Something is pushing us to the side of our own lives’. We can all feel that we’re pushed to the edge, that we’re losing our centre, forgetting who we really are and what our lives are really for.
And then Christ, the centre of all things, comes to us right where we are, on the edge of our own lives and says: ‘Be centred again. You always knew, but you have forgotten, that the Centre of all things is Love. I am Love, make a place for me, and I will place you with me, back in the centre of God’s Love.’‘Christmas sets the centre on the edge’. May it be so.Amen
In this anthem Be Thou Exalted, Lord, Purcell lifts up the one who made himself low for us.
CHOIR/INSTRUMENTAL GROUP: Be Thou Exalted, Lord (Purcell)
Be Thou Exalted, Lord, In Thine Own Strength: so will we sing and praise thy power. Alleluia.
MALCOLM: Let us pray.
FIONA: ‘You who were once far off have been brought near’: We pray for those who have been pushed away and excluded in our society, those who have been misunderstood or treated with suspicion. We particularly pray at this time for all who are on the road, especially those who have been forced to flee their homes because of war or famine. We ask that they may find welcome when they seek shelter and safety in an unfamiliar country, and that we ourselves may find ways of welcoming the stranger.
Lord in your mercy:ALL: Hear our prayer. SIMON: ‘For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one’: we reflect on the many divisions in our country and in the wider world, but we also remember our common interests and our common humanity. Help us to recognise that common humanity, and show us in the coming year those practical ways in which we might make and keep peace with one another.
Lord in your mercy:ALL: Hear our prayer.
FIONA: ‘There was no place for them in the Inn’: In this 150th year of our foundation we give thanks that in this college a place was found for the women who had been excluded for so long from higher education. We pray that Girton College may continue to find ways to include other groups who have been unfairly excluded in our own time.
Lord in your mercy:ALL: Hear our prayer.
SIMON: ‘You also are built together spiritually’: we pray for the work of the church and of all the faiths in our nation in building community and pursuing the things that make for peace. We pray especially for those who are stewards of spiritual life in the midst of a secular society.
Lord in your mercy:ALL: Hear our prayer.MALCOLM:Let us pray together in the words our saviour gave us.
ALL:Our Father, who art in heaven,hallowed be thy name;thy kingdom come;thy will be done;on earth as it is in heaven.Give us this day our daily bread.And forgive us our trespasses,as we forgive those who trespass against us.And lead us not into temptation;but deliver us from evil.For thine is the kingdom,the power and the glory,for ever and ever.Amen.
MALCOLM:We have gathered on the edge of Cambridge, and at the end of the year, to remember and celebrate the Great story of how God came into our midst. A story that tells us that wherever we are in time or space, we can be found and renewed by a living god who is the centre of all things. Our final hymn celebrates Jesus Christ as that living word of the Father: a word made flesh for us, a word bringing grace to us, a word gathering us together and keeping us in community.CHOIR/ORGAN/INSTRUMENTAL GROUP: Word of the Father, Everlasting (Quelle est cette odeur agréable)1 (All) Word of the Father everlasting,there at his side when time began;who but the Word reflects his glory,who but the Word may speak to man?Word of the Father everlasting,there at his side when time began.
(Organ Interlude)2 (All) Word once made flesh in Mary's keeping,source of all life and one true light;who of his own will dare receive him,or to their homes and hearts invite?Word once made flesh in Mary's keeping,source of all life and one true light. (Organ Interlude)3 (All) Word full of grace, among us dwelling,Jesus our Lord, the Father's Son:give us the power, your name confessing,truly God's children to become.Word full of grace, among us dwelling,Jesus our Lord, the Father's Son.
MALCOLM: May Christ,who by his incarnation gathered into onethings earthly and heavenly,fill you with joy and peace.And may the blessing of God almighty, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit be with you and remain with you and those whom you hold in your hearts this day and alwaysAmen
ORGAN: VOLUNTARY: Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich (Margaretha Christina de Jong)
RADIO 4 CLOSING ANNOUNCEMENT:Sunday Worship came from the Chapel of Girton College, Cambridge. It was led by the Reverend Dr Malcolm Guite, and the reflection was given by Baroness Hale. The Director of Music was Gareth Wilson, the organist James Mitchell, and the producer was Ben Collingwood. Next week’s Sunday Worship…