The Feast of the Dedication
12 February 2012
A Sermon Preached 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 Peter 2:1-5, 9-10
I bet you would be surprised to learn that I am very glad that our church is not an official New York City landmark. Being a landmark sounds like it would be a very good thing. It would acknowledge and say to the whole world that our church is important, architecturally significant, and worthy of preservation. And yet, while I believe that our church is indeed all those things, for a number of very good and practical reasons I would never want it to be designated a landmark. If we were, we would be shackled with a whole load of regulations that would make the management of our property much more complicated, as our neighbours at the Presbyterian Church on the corner of Amsterdam and 86th Street have discovered. Indeed, the only benefit of which I am aware is that we would be able to transfer our air rights to a property across a public way, a small and unlikely benefit.
We are good enough stewards of our property and we have our own sense of its importance and of the need to care of its fabric. We do not need an outside, civic organisation to tell us that our church, the feast of whose dedication we celebrate today, is special. The dilemma of landmarking—a powerful civic tool that could have saved Pennsylvania Station from the wrecking ball and that has helped to save many monuments in this city that have not benefited from a line of dedicated stewards—is, however, an interesting question when it comes to churches. Churches are living institutions that need to be able to grow and change with the needs of the congregation. They may become too small, or too big to fit the congregation. They may outlive their usefulness or, after a number of years, find that their location is no longer as convenient as it had once been. Indeed, these were some of the issues facing our Ignatian forebears in the last decade of the nineteenth century as they sat in their church on West 40th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.
Church buildings are set apart as special, dedicated, made holy, to serve the needs of a community of people (also known as the Church) in a particular time and in a particular place. When Father Ritchie and the church leaders hired Charles Coolidge Haight to design and build a new Saint Ignatius, they were seeking to accommodate the needs of the congregation, suit its size, and be appropriate to our special liturgical traditions. Indeed, I am grateful that our building remains useful and decorous as far as our style and needs are concerned, and none of you need to worry that any of what I have just said might serve as a pretext for doing anything to our church. I am simply musing on this question of the ephemeral nature of a church building, a nature that we do not think about too much.
Indeed, the more I reflect upon it, the less I actually like thinking of the ephemeral nature of churches. When Father Ritchie and Haight set out to build this church, they were not merely thinking in utilitarian terms. They were not thinking of this building as “a really useful engine”, to steal the phrase from the Rev’d W. Audry, a mid-twentieth-century Anglican clergyman and railway enthusiast. They wanted this building to be beautiful and noble, to reflect their values, as well as those of many centuries of Christians who have worshipped in the Anglican and Catholic traditions. It remains useful to us today because of the care with which it was designed and executed, because of the love and dedication of the patrons and of the architect.
In the end there is no need to choose between a church building needing to suit the needs of those who worship in it today and remaining a transcendent symbol of something more than the moment in which we exist. The Church itself, as I have reflected on before, is an organism, a body, with persistence through time, made up of generations of Christians who have gathered together to remember Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and celebrated the sacrament in which he becomes present with us in the bread and wine. Our buildings, where we do this gathering, require themselves a sense of persistence, as well as a flexibility to meet the changing needs of the Body of Christ. Churches, then, are places where the transcendent meets the imminent, where that which is eternal engages with that which is happening in time and space.
There is perhaps no more powerful image of this than in the story of Jacob’s ladder we heard just a few moments ago:
And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your descendants; and your descendants shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.”
“There was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! .... How awesome is this place!” That is what happens in Church! We find a place here, in New York, on the Upper West Side, where many of our number seem to be living these days, build a building that is suitable and beautiful to boot. What happened, then, when it became filled with people hearing the word of God and celebrating the sacraments? We find that there is all of a sudden a ladder, reaching up into the heavens and the angels of God are ascending and descending. The ladder goes both ways, up and down, and this movement is continuous. The transcendent world of God is breaking into our world, and the stuff of this world is reaching the realms of God.
The amazing thing is that this is not just happening here. It is happening at Saint Michael’s up Amsterdam, it is happening at Heavenly Rest across the Park, and it is happening at All Angels, yes, even there in their old parish house down Broadway. Wherever the Church gathers, wherever it makes its home, wherever space is dedicated, set apart, made holy, God breaks into that space and communicates with us, and sends us out to do the work he gives us to do.
How lucky we are, therefore, to have this beautiful building, this extraordinary building, made with love and attention, that remains a centre of beautiful liturgy and music, remains a vibrant locus of love. We need no Landmarks Commission to tell us how lucky we are, how privileged we are to be stewards of this church, and how much we should this day rejoice and celebrate this church’s dedication and the vision and generosity of generations of Ignatians before us.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
11 February 2012
© 2012 Andrew Charles Blume