Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Rededication of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine

The trumpets shall sound. We hear that line each year at this time in The Messiah, but Sunday the trumpets did sound, as did the Great Organ, a brass ensemble, Paul Winter’s wonderful soprano sax, the drums of The Forces of Nature and close to 5,000 voices as my beloved Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine celebrated a majestic and emotional Mass of rededication.

Seven years ago a six-alarm fire left the Cathedral seriously damaged, but not defeated. Throughout the following years of cleaning and restoration we worshiped in one partitioned area or another of that great space, longing to gaze at the full, gorgeous expanse once more. That day finally came, and now we have a Cathedral as shimmering as it must have been for its original dedication on Nov. 30, 1941. All 601 feet of it -- room for two football fields, plus room for the football, as we say, the world’s largest Gothic cathedral.

In his sermon, our Dean, the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski, talked about our long advent, an appropriate metaphor for the first Sunday of Advent, the liturgical season that prepares for and anticipates the birth of our Savior. He talked about the Cathedral’s place in our city and in the world, that it is not only the mother church for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, but that it is a center for the arts, for discourse and community events. Chartered as a “house of prayer for all people,” it also has always fought for justice through wars, the Civil Rights Movement, on issues for the environment and human sexuality. The Dean called on all of us present to continue to take that fight and that light far beyond the limestone walls of that great place.

He called it “the people’s Cathedral,” a name it obviously deserves judging by the multitude and variety of those gathered to celebrate, people from all walks of life, and economic, social, age and racial groups. Every free pass had been given out more than an hour before the nearly three-hour service began, this on a rainy, raw day that would have been a natural for staying home.

Others graced the pulpit to give praise to the work of the Cathedral, including our senior senator, Charles Schumer. One, though, was given a super star’s welcome. In his introduction, the Dean slyly said, “Well, is she still our senator, you want to know?” and then Hillary Rodham Clinton made her way to the microphone, accompanied by a rousing standing ovation.

It was a dynamic moment in a service full of them, but it wasn’t the most dynamic. That went to the response to the Dean’s expression of gratitude to the firefighters who fought the blaze, nearly a dozen of whom walked in full dress uniform in the procession and sat in a place of honor in the Great Choir. The Dean commented that seven years was a long time to put up with inconvenience and repair work, but that it would have been a lot longer if it hadn’t been for the members of the New York Fire Department who risked their lives to save our sanctuary. At that the entire audience rose to its feet and applauded and applauded and applauded. It was so moving that it brings tears to my eyes now just thinking of it.

Sunday was that kind of day. It’s hard to describe the joy of hearing our Great Organ again for the first time since December of 2001. All 8,500 pipes had had to be sent to the midwest for cleaning and repair, and then brought back and reassembled and retuned in the Cathedral. My heart leapt when I heard the first notes and then as organists Timothy Brumfield and Bruce Neswick alternated playing hymns that soared into the heights. I looked around me at people with their eyes closed, shaking their heads in joyful recognition, completely in the moment.

We also were blessed with a new hymn, “The New Jerusalem,” written for the occasion by our vicar, the Rev. Canon Victoria R. Sirota (lyrics), and her husband, Robert (music), who is the president of the Manhattan School of Music. I wish I could play the music for you here, but I can give you the words, which offered comfort and a commissioning call to share God’s love:

I, John, your beloved brother,
Who shares in Christ’s ministry,
Heard a voice on the Isle of Patmos,
“Go, write in a book what you see.”
And then I saw the new Jerusalem,
Holy City adorned as a bride,
And then I heard a voice thunder down from the throne,
“Tell the world that you are God’s own!”

No mourning or pain or crying,
For death shall have lost its might,
and there will be no more darkness,
For the Lord God will be your light.
And we will see the new Jerusalem,
Holy City adorned as a bride,
And then we’ll hear a voice thunder down from the throne,
“Praise the Lord, for you are God’s own!”

When hunger and war shall vanish,
When hope shall replace all fear,
When people shall work together,
When love shall dry every tear,
Then we will be the New Jerusalem,
Holy City adorned as a bride,
And we will sing with the saints and martyrs at the throne,
“Hallelujah! We are God’s own!”

What a beautiful hymn. I hope we sing it often through the years. It’s scriptural, and it so represents the work of the Cathedral. The Dean said the Cathedral changes people and that is true. My faith has grown and deepened greatly in my decades there. How blessed I am to be woven into the spiritual fabric of such a magnificent, incarnational place.

1 comment:

Ross said...

Excellent post, Retta. It sounds like it was an inspiring event. I wish I had attended.

I am attending another event at the Cathedral, which I'm very excited about: Paul Winter's Winter Solstice Celebration (www.solsticeconcert.com).

I'm looking forward to seeing the Cathedral once again in its full glory. Thanks for your spirit.