Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Who's Around the Edges, and What Can They See? A Thought for Epiphany.

When I was studying Theology at Oxford University (I know, that sounds like a not-so-stealth boast, but stick with me, it's intrinsic to the plot...) my co-conspirators in theological conundrums and I used to drive from our college to the centre of Oxford, which took about twenty minutes. We'd always park in the same car park, and walk up across the Magdalen Bridge to the Examination Schools for lectures, or wherever our tutorials happened to be, often nipping into the cafe for a brain-quickening espresso to kick-start the theological thinking. Most days, a little straggly group of people, mostly men, almost certainly homeless, sat around the edge of the car park by the public toilets, with cans of their own brain-altering liquids, laughing and chatting.

There were days when I was very tempted not to turn up to my class or lecture, but to wander over, buy them a beer and put to them whatever theological question was on my academic plate that week. 'Hey, what do you think of the idea that God changes?' 'Listen, what do you reckon that faith really means?' They looked like a friendly enough bunch, and after all, they just sat around drinking and talking all day. That must give them loads of time, I thought, to question, debate, discuss - all the things that we students were striving to do in our essays and verbal sparring bouts.

I'd love to be able to tell you that one day I did just that and had a profound theological conversation. I didn't; I was too timetable-bound and, if I'm honest, a bit too timid. But I noticed them, around the edges of a car park which itself was on the edge of the High Street; I realised that being around the edges gave them a vantage point from which they probably noticed all sorts of comings and goings, and that their lifestyle on the margins of society might give them insights emerging out of all those hours of chat which those of us who were rushing from lecture to class to tute probably hurried past without a moment's thought. Okay, they were probably talking drivel most of the time - let's face it, most of us do - but who knows what gold there might be among the dross?

Noticing who is around the edges, and wondering what they might be seeing, what they might be hearing and thinking and responding to is, I think, incredibly important for Christians. In classrooms and at parties, at conferences and in workplaces, in church buildings and church communities, there are people who, for whatever reason, whether permanently or temporarily, whether physically or metaphorically (or both), find themselves around the margins. They might feel uncomfortable being there; they might make everyone else feel uncomfortable, like a gang of drunkards in a car park. They might speak a lot of blether, or they might not speak much at all, but they might have a wisdom to offer that comes out of the unique, and often incisive, perspective that margins allow.  

Two thousand years ago, on the very edges of the map of places which people expected to be part of God's purposes, three men (if tradition is to be followed) noticed something odd in the sky, and responded, bringing with them to the infant Jesus wisdom that his own people had failed to notice. They brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, intuitively seeing in the portents of their own tradition that the baby was a priest-king whose death would be, literally, crucial. God was making himself known at the very edges; wisdom was found on the margins. Epiphany is all about the people on the edges; it's all about the edges themselves becoming wider and wider so that the circle of our vision of God's presence in the world widens and widens. After all, if God is a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference nowhere (I could have had a good chat with the car park gang about that statement), any talk of edges is illusory nonsense anyway. Epiphany should remind us of that  next time we see those people standing around the edges of the room, or on the margins of society.    

One of my regrets about my time in Oxford is that I didn't throw caution to the wind one day, and spend a few hours with the car park gang. Maybe it would have been an embarrassing disaster; maybe the gulf between me and them would have been untraversable. But maybe, just maybe, I might have learnt something from them that the books and the professors could never teach me.  Walking across the car park would have been risky - but isn't Epiphany all about risky travel, and finding Jesus at the journey's end?

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