The Feast of the Dedication
11 February 2019
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
If you are in the know about what goes on around here, it won’t surprise you that it hasn’t been easy for me to muster much enthusiasm for preaching on the wonders of our building. The last few years we have been struggling to maintain our historic property. We have undertaken three major capital projects to ensure the stability and safety of the fabric and the comfort and security of the community who gather here. We have also faced other, unforseen problems from pigeons flying into, and dying in our organ pipes to a burst hot water heater. Something comes up almost every day and our staff and community have been repeatedly inconvenienced by these issues. At times like these it feels like the church building, whose dedication anniversary was Friday and which we commemorate today, is more of an albatross about our necks than something to celebrate. For an instant, I find sympathy with the view prevalent in the 1960s and 1970s, that churches should not be burdened with property.
And yet, rather than take the opening words of today’s introit—Terribilis est locus iste—at face value in the simplest translaion, I am still compelled to wonder with Jacob, “How awesome is this place?” Travelling towards Haran, Jacob
came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 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!
Jacob found a spot that entered deeply into his subconscious. It penetrated his imagination and he understood that there were locations here on earth that functioned as portals between the eternal world of God and the world bound by time and space. Here, God told Jacob of the flourishing of his descendants and assured him that, “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.” In this place hovering between heaven and earth, Jacob was reassured of God’s presence and love, of God’s steadfastness and support, that God will never forsake him or those who come after him.
On waking, Jacob uttered those words rendered into the translation-ese of the Missal, “How dreadful is this place.” But not “dreadful” at all, but full of God’s indescribable power. The Italians would call it terribilità: grandeur, magnificence, inspiring wonder and awe. The Revised Standard Version of Genesis puts it this way, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” In this place, set apart for comprehending the divine purpose, encountering God and receiving our mission, Jacob received strength to continue his own work.
Coming into a church like ours, off the streets of our city, out of the hustle and bustle, out of the noise and (we hope) not subject to the power of the elements, we enter a space that hovers between two worlds. It is a space that is meant to exist both in and out of time. Designed in a fanciful, romantic Gothic style that was new to the Americans in the nineteenth-century, our church hearkens back to the past, and yet does not try to deny its existence in the present moment or its persistence into the future. Like that spot where Jacob slept it is both in time and out of time.
Here, as we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, together we will experience over and over that moment when we join our voices with “angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify God’s glorious name, evermore praising and saying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy...’” In that moment, just as in Jacob’s dream, heaven opens before us and our song is united with the song that is eternally voiced in the heavens. We are one with those both in and out of time and space who praise the God who created us, who loved us so much that God dwelt among us in our flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and who remains with us always and everywhere on the winds of the Holy Spirit.
We come to this place to experience this connection with the eternal so we may return to the world of events and of time ready to engage with our brothers and sisters in the works of love to which we are called. Our Epistle put it this way, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of the one who called you out of darkness into God’s marvellous light.” This work of declaration, inspired by contact with the divine in this place, is not done merely with our lips, but with our whole selves in what we do, in how we act.
Jesus understood the power of sacred space to align the missions of heaven and earth and when he saw the temple misused, he did not fail to act. He saw a place that should have been the gate of heaven used not for the furtherance of God’s purpose, but for that of men. He
entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you make it a den of robbers.”
Jesus knew what places like the temple, places like our parish church can be for individuals and communities. They are places where all are welcome, where God’s values are put before the self-interested values of men, where God’s identity as Love is expressed and enacted, where God speaks to us in and through Scripture and Sacrament. Above all, they are places that fill us with a sense of the indescribable magnificance, of the awesomeness of God and inspire us in a desire to be one with God and with each other.
We maintain this awesome place not just because it is beautiful or historic, or simply because it puts a roof over our heads and allows for our self-perpetuation. We maintain this place because it is the gate of heaven, because it is a house of prayer for all people, because it is where we encounter that which is truly real, truly important. It is where we can allow ourselves to be turned from individuals into members of one body, able to accomplish by the grace of God, the actualisation of Divine Love into the world.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 9 February 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume