Overlooking this dangerous city (our murder rate persistently remains among the highest in the nation) is a restored Roman Catholic convent, built originally for the Sisters of Monte Maria, and peopled by nuns who for more than a century prayed for Richmond, Virginia, and supported themselves by baking communion bread. In the 1980’s they moved to a new convent in the suburbs.
Richmond Hill is a retreat center, and remains, foremost, a place of prayer and healing, and then of retreats and conferences, all of which are defined each day by morning, midday, and evening prayer. On Mondays at 5:00 p.m. there is an ecumenical Eucharist with preaching followed by a community meal. Under the leadership of an Episcopal priest, Benjamin Campbell, this center has awakened our fragmented region to its persistent racism and violence, and (always with prayer) has promoted reconciliation, civic engagement, and the public role of the whole people of God, including but not limited to, black Pentecostals, white evangelicals, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Every city in America needs such a place. On the wall over the pulpit, prayer desk, and communion table in the renovated chapel are these words: “Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.” (Psalm 127, NRSV).
The communion table  is a chalice, an enormous communion cup made of mahogany with a glass top. The interior is washed in gold. What surprises you most is the crack, running from the rim where it is wide, narrowing, and disappearing into the column that rests on the pedestal. The lights from the chancel pour into the cup and illumine the gold, so that out of the crack in the chalice light shines in the room.
When I asked what this remarkable table meant, Campbell, with a mysterious smile, said that it means many things. “What do you think it means?” he asked. If its meaning is in the beholder’s eye, then I see a double meaning, now as the light of Christmas glows with Advent anticipation and penitence.
The chalice is cracked; the church is broken. Our divisions and anger about salvation and sexuality pour into the world. We quibble and shout over apostolic succession and cultural captivity. We readily take up swords of mockery and hate against each other, and each other’s Christ (either militant or pacifist). Thus we miss “the little Babe, so few days old, who came to rifle (not our theological/political opponents) but Satan’s fold.” This chalice holds the wine of forgiveness and joy in our Savior, Jesus Christ, and yet it is broken in the eyes of the world, and for many in the household of God.
That same crack opens into the wine of salvation’s feast. Through that crack we see the banquet God prepares for all peoples and nations. We see what God longs to give humanity: healing, reconciliation, and restoration. The light spilling out of that chalice announces the Christmas Scriptures to all who have ears to hear and eyes to see: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” “The light that enlightens all humanity was coming into the world . . . and the darkness has never extinguished it” – not even the darkness in the church.
And the crack in the chalice also reminds us that Bethlehem of Judea, as foretold by the prophets, is the place where in the birth of Jesus the universe was cracked open. Now human history and all creation are redefined, refashioned by the One who came, not to condemn the world, but so that through him, the world itself might be saved.
Out of the crack in the chalice pours a light to enlighten the world, and to bring persons and nations under the sway of the Prince of Peace.
This little babe, so few days old
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake
Tho’ he himself for cold do shake.
For in this weak, unarmed wise,
The gates of hell he will surprise. 
Weak and unarmed, humbled by grace and gladness, we rejoice in the birth of Christ our Savior.
 The table was designed and made by Harrison Higgins, a nationally known furniture maker who lives in Richmond.
 From a poem by the sixteenth century poet Robert Southwell, set to music by composer Benjamin Britten in “A Ceremony of Carols.”
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