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The Feast of the Dedication
7 February 2010

A Sermon by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O Almighty God, to whose glory we celebrate the dedication of this house of prayer: We give thee thanks for the fellowship of those who have worshipped in this place; and we pray that all who seek thee here may find thee, and be filled with thy joy and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

1 Kings 8:22-30 or Genesis 28:10-17
1 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10
Matthew 21:12-16

For most of the Church year, preachers tell their listeners not to make an idol of their church building. Preachers fresh from seminary are often the most liable to head in this direction. I know I was. Empowered by my liturgy professor with the historical knowledge that early Christians—usually the heroes of any liturgical argument—saw their church buildings as the “house of the Church” rather than the “house of God,” I know I delivered at least one, if not two, sermons in the early ’90s on the subject. Keen to share the good news that God could not be localised, boxed in, confined to any one building, I, and many others before and since have proclaimed that churches are where we gather, where we make community, and where, just for a time, we welcome God in Christ as our guest at the Eucharistic Feast. We warn against fetishising our church buildings and encourage us to move beyond our walls out into God's world, God's larger kingdom that is in the process of becoming.

For the most part, I would still agree with that theological position. However, there is one day in the life of a parish church where we have permission to contemplate the wonders of our church building. There is one day when we celebrate how much a place can mean to a community. There is one day when we celebrate how a building—mere stone, wood, and glass—can have so much more meaning once it has been dedicated to the service of our God. That day is the feast of the Dedication, different for each building, but no less important to each.

Today here on the corner of Eighty-seventh Street and West End Avenue we celebrate the Dedication of our beautiful church, completed in 1901 and beautified over the next decades with the extraordinary collection of wood carvings and other objects that surround us this morning. Today we turn our attention to our parish home, that place that is at the centre of our common life and reflect upon the generosity of our benefactors past and present, upon the thousands of people who have worshipped here, upon the ministry that has flowed out of our doors, and upon our unbroken tradition, maintained since our founding in another building in another part of the city, of historic Catholic worship enriched by glorious music. We acknowledge all that has transpired here, chiefly the way in which God in Christ has been present with us in the Eucharist, in his body broken for us, shared with us, for over one hundred years. We acknowledge that the building itself is a symbol, a powerful, living, real symbol of God’s presence in the City.

This is what happens when objects and people are set apart for the work of God. When this Church was dedicated to Saint Ignatius of Antioch, and to Our Lady and to Our Lord it became more than just a pile of stone and wood and glass, even a pile of stone and wood and glass arranged in as pleasing manner as this building. When the church was dedicated, set apart, consecrated, it became more than a beautiful building. It became a Church. It became specially alive with the spirit of God, the spirit of its community of the baptised. It became specially alive with the presence of Jesus Christ. For while God’s presence is indeed all around us at all times, we humans often need the help of certain objects to focus us upon that presence. This building that is now more than a building stands as a visible marker of God’s beauty, God’s love, of God’s longing for us to be reconciled with him. It is, in short, a Sacrament.

Saint Ignatius’ Church is more than the dwelling place of the very body of Christ alive in the Eucharistic Elements reserved in this place. Saint Ignatius’ Church is more than a home for us who are ourselves the body of Christ militant in the world. The Church of Saint Ignatius of Antioch itself stands as an outward and visible sign of the Body of Christ present and risen to new life. The Church itself reveals Christ's body here with us, that he is welcomed into people's hearts and lives and into their physical dwelling places. As such it stands in the midst of the city as a beacon calling to all people, calling from the Cross, calling from the empty tomb, out into a world in need of love, in need of his reconciling power. This building is a sacrament, then, the very actualisation, of God’s presence in the City. When we see it rising against the apartment buildings of West End Avenue, when we see it next to the parking garages and bus stop on Eighty-seventh Street, we know that God is still here, that God is welcome here. In the midst of the busy life of New York, God in Christ is made welcome and made known to all.

We Catholic Christians—and I mean to include all Episcopalians and not merely those of us who are members of the Catholic movement within our church—have been given the gift of this Sacramental outlook. We have been given the gift to know God’s presence in certain, special occasions like church buildings, wedding rings, a kiss, the sprinkling of water, and chiefly in the Eucharist itself, that greatest localisation of God’s presence within those common elements of bread and wine, elements we take into ourselves so we may be transformed into the very body of Christ. We know and share this gift with the world so that God's presence, Christ's very body, may be recognised in all places and at all times.

Gathered in this very special place, in this sacrament of God’s presence in the middle of a City that so often seems hostile to his presence, we are granted the power to be ourselves bearers of God’s presence. I pray that we may always recognise the outward signs of God’s presence in our midst, of God's love for us, of God’s call to us, and that we may respond always with a loud “Amen.”

Andrew Charles Blume+
New York City
[The Dorchester Chaplains], 3 February 2009

 

© 2010 Andrew Charles Blume