The Lord Cried: A New York Sermon on Jesus’ Ascent

By Josh Tapper

The world's largest Gothic cathedral is located in Morningside Heights. (First Things)

Originally posted on FirstThings.com.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is the seat of the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York and the world’s largest Gothic cathedral. The first stone was laid in 1892, but construction is not yet complete. The cathedral is a study in contrasts. The grounds stretch for three long blocks between busy Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive—a vast tract of Manhattan real estate—and yet the complex maintains a distinct charm. The cathedral is nestled in Morningside Heights, an uptown neighborhood teeming with students from nearby Columbia University, and yet this city landmark, a highlight on tourist maps, feels, at its heart, like a tight-knit neighborhood parish. At the 11 a.m. service on Sunday, February 28, the contrast between the vast and historic structure and the intimate service within couldn’t have been greater.


On this Sunday after a record-breaking snowfall, nearly 200 worshipers gathered under the shallow dome at the cathedral’s crossing to sit in hard wooden chairs arranged in a U formation. To the east, toward the high altar, sat a culturally diverse choir of children and adults. The interior of St. John the Divine is an architectural marvel. The ceiling at its highest is lofty enough to enclose the Statue of Liberty, minus its pedestal. Although the facade and the nave are Gothic in style, the crossing is Romanesque. Small chapels within the cathedral reflect English, French, and Spanish Gothic influences. The cathedral boasts the largest stained-glass window in the country, exquisite seventeenth-century tapestries, and even a pair of twelve-foot menorahs donated by New York Times founder Adolph Ochs.


The music of this Choral Eucharist was sweetly sung and highly accessible, and the voices of choir and congregation together often filled the cavernous space. For the most part, the service was serious and refined. Although it showed signs, at times, of having been painstakingly rehearsed, it was refreshing. The hymns and prayers were directed to the individual parishioners who had come to worship, rather than to the steady stream of tourists and passersby who milled about near the bronze doors at the western entrance. At one point the celebrant (the Rev. Thomas P. Miller, the cathedral’s canon for liturgy and the arts) jokingly addressed a two-year-old girl in the congregation to thank her for dragging her parents to church every Sunday.


The service moved at a brisk pace. The homilist was the Rev. Canon Patti Welch, a chaplain at the Cathedral School; her sermon, no more than ten minutes long, was swept into the flow. Standing at an ornately carved pulpit to the left of the main altar, Canon Welch spoke of the church of Dominus Flevit, which stands on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The church’s name means “The Lord cried”; it memorializes a specific time and place at which Jesus, approaching Jerusalem, was moved to tears as he thought of the city’s coming destruction at the hands of its enemies.


Canon Welch recounted the story of Christ’s lamentation of the loss of Jerusalem with a teacher’s sensibility, spinning a morality tale inside a dose of sentimentality. Christ wished he could cradle Jerusalem—could save Jerusalem—the way a hen cradles her eggs, explained Canon Welch, referring to a hen mosaic inside Dominus Flevit. But why a hen, she asked. Why not a more aggressive animal, like a rooster or a fox? “While a hen doesn’t inspire much confidence,” she went on, “Jesus is always creating havoc with our expectations of how things should turn out. A hen’s chief purpose in life is to protect her eggs,” thus making the hen a symbol of nurture and safety.


In the unexpected, said Canon Welch, lies beauty. “If I pulled off all expectations,” she said, “I’d be left with yearning and the experience of freshness and aliveness” as well as patience—all qualities manifest in Christ. Canon Welch’s expressive preaching was resonant and captivating, but she offered a reductive insight that expectation only “constructs disappointment in the world.” True, a life without expectation can be a life of inspiration and spontaneity, but it can also be a life without direction or self-conscious purpose.


Still, the words of this sermon, delivered within the walls of one of the world’s most imposing cathedrals, were heartfelt and touching. Canon Welch framed the importance of some of Christ’s most cherished qualities in a simple question: “What if love, softness, patience, protection, and openness were the key to awaken our wonderfulness?” St. John the Divine’s mission statement speaks of the cathedral as “a house of prayer for all people” that “serves the many diverse people of our City, Nation and World.” To contemplate going out of that great church and back into the world to bring love, softness, patience, protection, and openness to all people is not such a bad idea after all.


Information:

City: New York


Borough: Manhattan

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Address: 1047 Amsterdam Avenue (at West 112th Street)

Phone: 212-316-7540

Website: www.stjohndivine.org

Religion: Christian

Denomination: Episcopal

Main Service: Choral Eucharist, 11 a.m., Sunday

Pastor: The Right Reverend Mark S. Sisk, Bishop of New York; the Very Reverend Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean. The celebrant on this occasion was the Rev. Canon Thomas P. Miller; the sermon was delivered by the Rev. Patti Welch.

Leave a Reply