Genesis 28:1017; Psalm 84; 1 Peter 2:15, 910; Mark 14:39
Festival Service of Thanksgiving on the Cathedral’s Centennial
Yesterday, in the course of the festivities for this birthday weekend, we re-enacted the service of the laying of the foundation stone of Washington National Cathedral, one hundred years ago to the day. After a long century, all the principal players were back again, and for those of us sitting in the amphitheater it felt as if we had entered a time capsule and been transported to a world where Massachusetts Avenue had just been paved and there were at least as many horse-drawn carriages as cars. There they were again: Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee, the visionary founder of the Cathedral; the United States Marine Band; streams of choristers; dignitaries of church and nation; and, of course, old rough and ready himself, President Theodore Roosevelt, as blustery as ever.
The Cathedral’s own carpenters and masons had assembled a large wooden frame and hoist to hold a re-creation of the foundation stone—what looked like a massive block of granite containing the smaller piece of stone brought all the way from Bethlehem.
We were reminded of the vast crowd of 30,000 who gathered for that day, how all the churches in the Diocese of Washington had held early services at 9:30 so that parishioners could arrive on Mount St. Alban by noon. And we then participated in an abbreviated version of the service—singing parts of the hymns, hearing some of the eloquent words, all leading to the key moment. As we all sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” a hymn about God taking on flesh among us, we watched mortar spread and the foundation stone lowered into place—the culmination of more than a decade of intense planning, and the beginning of what would prove to be nearly a century of construction.
“God speed the work begun this day,” President Roosevelt boomed out. And to my surprise, and others’ too, what began as a simple costume ceremony with a bowler hats and long skirts, ended up giving some of us lumps in our throats as we watched the stone settling into place. To remember that moment so long ago, we realized, was to touch something holy about who we are and why we are here.
What a century it has been! Eighty-three years of construction itself, and a hundred and more of creating this Cathedral’s life and mission. We would not be here today without the dreamers who first met in Charles Glover’s living room to imagine a church for the nation built in the heart of its capital. They and a handful of other lay and clergy leaders believed that this was a gift only the Episcopal Church could give the nation, and that it would be worth several lifetimes of labor and devotion to make it a reality.
One of the most striking aspects of cathedrals is that building them requires generations, and often centuries, of architects and builders, artists and artisans, volunteers and benefactors. A cathedral cannot be the achievement of any one time, individual, or group. In fact, what is in many ways most moving about cathedrals such as Canterbury, Salisbury or Washington is something we could call “the cathedral spirit.” Beyond the soaring beauty, intricate stone tracery, and the sheer miracle that they were built at all, you can’t help but be struck by the fact that people who were neither there at the beginning nor would be there at the end gave their lives to create something beautiful for God.
It makes you think of the words of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope.”
Building this new cathedral was difficult from the start. Affordable land in the right location was hard to come by, with several attempts that didn’t work. The prospects were looking grim, until at last an opportunity came to buy thirty acres of land beside St. Alban’s Church, though the price seemed overwhelming. It became clear that Bishop Satterlee himself would have to sign personally a mortgage, worth some $3 million today—for a project he could not be sure would be realized.
On the Sunday before the agreement was to be signed he had gone for a walk in the woods with “the feeling,” as he later wrote, “that this was the last Sunday I should be free for many years…” And he went on: “I thought of Admiral Dewey at Manila, and how for the sake of his country he had taken his life in his hands; how, if he had been beaten at Manila, there was absolutely nowhere for his fleet to go… Then I felt, ‘If Dewey can do this for country, surely I can take a different kind of risk for God.’” And so he signed the contract with “as much nerve and courage as I have ever put forth.” He put himself on the line.
Then day after day, year after year, Satterlee worked tirelessly to “nationalize the Cathedral,” as he called it, to get Americans far and wide to see this as their cathedral, too, and to offer their prayers and financial resources for its completion. Finally, after seven years and hundreds of fundraising letters and meetings, the debt on the land was paid. In Bishop Satterlee’s journal he reflected on what that meant:
I was led into this project. If I could have foreseen the trials it would bring in the winter, spring and summer of 1903, I should never have had the courage to attempt it…
No one will ever realize the long suspense, continuous strain, the necessity of depending daily on God’s help, which the Cathedral debt … has called forth. My only object in writing about it here is to show that God and not man has begun the building of the Cathedral….
I want to emphasize this fact with all the earnestness I can put into words … that the Cathedral Foundation in its beginnings, was built up by God Himself, and I want … future generations to realize … that the work is blessed and hallowed and carried on by Christ Himself, while we have the privilege of being co-laborers with Him as He builds it up, step by step and stone by stone.
An exhausted Bishop Satterlee died four months after the laying of the foundation stone. Nearly every cathedral in Europe is associated with a great saint or martyr. Buried now just above the foundation stone in our Bethlehem Chapel, Bishop Satterlee is our founding spirit, perhaps even our martyr, a man who spent himself to build a cathedral for the nation.
Even here, in our earliest years, you begin to see three recurring truths of our life. First, there was never enough money. Because we receive not a penny from either the government or the Episcopal Church, we have had to build this cathedral step by step, stone by stone, dollar by dollar. We depend for our ministry on people who believe this Cathedral can make a difference to our nation and our world. Second, without fail, God has sent us the right people at the right time for every stage of the journey, lay leaders and clergy, women and men of immense faith, talent, and generosity. And third, at the heart of our life has been a willingness to risk, to devote ourselves to a vision that requires not months, not years, but generations to achieve.
Countless people in our life have embodied this “cathedral spirit.” There was George Bratenahl, who served as dean during the first twenty years of construction and chose much of the rich iconography in the Cathedral. And Philip Frohman, a consummate perfectionist, who served as architect of the Cathedral for 52 devoted years. There was Bishop James Freeman, who for 20 crucial years pushed the construction forward through a Great Depression and a World War. And, of course, in more recent times there was Dean Francis B. Sayre, Jr., who for 27 years presided over the construction of the central tower and the nave, aided tirelessly by Canon Richard Feller, who oversaw every detail of construction. Finally, there were the two great builders at the end, Bishop John Walker and Provost Charles Perry, who led the cathedral out of a financial crisis that threatened its survival, and then with relentless vision and financial toughness completed it in 1990.
And that’s only part of the story. These leaders worked with lay leaders and donors, strong and generous women and men, to raise this cathedral on the Washington skyline and make rose windows, a carillon, and an organ possible.
And we should never forget that gifts for building the cathedral came, and still do, in many sizes—from a few nickels and quarters gathered in a mite box, to a few dollars sent in from a small town in Iowa, to the major gifts that ultimately enabled the work to be completed. It took generations of labor and generosity to bring us to this moment. That, too, has been part of the cathedral spirit.
And if you cast even a glance at the gracious beauty of the grounds on our Close, you should offer a prayer of thanksgiving for Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., the landscape architect, and Florence Bratenahl, founder of All Hallows Guild.
Of course, the actual work of building required the vision of artists and the skill of generations of artisans—stonecarvers, masons, metal-workers, glass artists—who made of their work enduring gestures of praise. Today we give thanks for it all.
But why did all these people devote themselves so inordinately? What propelled them on in the face of so many obstacles?
We know that for many, building this cathedral was an act of Christian love, and of patriotism as well. They believed that amid all the grand buildings and monuments in the nation’s capital, one should represent the God who loves, and has a mission for, this nation. They yearned for a more united country and a more united church, and they believed this cathedral could be a force for unity. And they were convinced that the spiritual life of the nation needed to be expressed firmly and powerfully in this seat of worldly power.
At a deeper level, though, I believe they cared passionately that at the heart of this city should be a building and a ministry to help people to live by the two great commandments—to love God with all your heart and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
Cathedrals are acts of extravagance. You know, our guides and docents talk about the “Wow moment.” It occurs when a visitor steps inside the west doors for the first time. It takes only a few seconds before you hear the “Wows!” Cathedrals seek to show us a beauty and harmony that overwhelms our little categories. They want us to see that we are part of a cosmos, a grand unity, and they want us to fall in love with the God we are glimpsing there. The real business of cathedrals is seduction, getting us to lose ourselves in a peace and harmony the world cannot give.
Our gospel lesson for today is about that kind of extravagance. Jesus is about to be arrested. His life is nearly over, and he knows it. But before the tragic events unfold, we have this intimate moment. A woman comes in with a jar of expensive oil, and she breaks it and pours it over Jesus’ head.
It’s an act of extravagance. No more prudent than building a grand cathedral. This well-to-do woman, seeing what was about to happen to her Lord, did the only thing she knew how to do—care for him, console him, and as an act of faith, worship him. Surely, the bystanders say, the poor could have used that money, the equivalent of a year’s wage for a worker. Of course. But Jesus defends her impulsive act of devotion. No one needs to tell Jesus about caring for the poor; that had been at the core of his ministry, and by this time he’s poor himself, dining with a leper, his friends about to desert him, only a death sentence ahead.
“She has done what she could,” Jesus says. Sometimes what is most essential to our humanity is the capacity to worship a goodness and beauty far beyond what we can imagine. The woman is doing this for love. And that, Jesus knows, is where discipleship and service begin.
Listen to these words of a contemporary mystic:
Adoration is nothing less than the oxygen of survival…. There is a worldwide famine of adoration. The desolation, nihilism, meaninglessness, tragic and brutal carelessness… we see all around us, is the direct result of living in a spiritual concentration camp in which we are deprived… of just that food our hearts, minds, and souls need most—the food of worship, of love, of gratitude, the bread and wine of [praise].
And so Washington National Cathedral serves as a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, and for worshipers and explorers who come in search of a glimpse of the mystery and wonder of God. We as a nation need a place where our eyes can be cleansed, our hearts lifted, and our strength renewed.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength,” Jesus said. Cathedrals are made for that.
But there is a Second Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Cathedral life is a waste if it doesn’t lead to changed lives and a changed world. “Come,” our New Testament lessons says, and “like living stones let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” That is the calling of our time—for us to become living stones ourselves, as sturdy and enduring as Indiana limestone, as we embody God’s love in a troubling 21st century.
Our world needs more than ever a vigorous voice of a thoughtful, Christian faith. Fundamentalism and now an increasingly virulent atheism are defining religion in the public square. Who will take up the challenge to offer a Christian faith committed to intellectual vitality, to respect for other religions, to building a world of understanding and peace, if we do not? Who will help reclaim the word “Christian” as a word of hope and healing in our society? Our role for the nation demands that we claim that mission as our own, in course and class and lecture and worship, through websites and television and radio and print.
Our nation needs this sacred place to pour itself into the work of reconciliation. In our first century the important truth-tellers laid hold of this Canterbury Pulpit to address the nation—among them Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dalai Lama, and none more consistently than our own Dean Francis Sayre. When he traveled to march in Selma, he marched for this Cathedral. When later Bishop Walker challenged apartheid in South Africa from this pulpit, he spoke with the authority not only of his office but of this Cathedral.
Reconciliation in this time means building bridges—across the city of Washington between black and white, across the globe between Americans and Iranians, in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine, in our own Episcopal Church between liberals and conservatives.
And reconciliation means creating ways to carry on the decades-long work of interfaith dialogue and now interfaith work combating disease and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. To see God in a poor wandering Jewish teacher about to go to a cross requires that we see God in every human face, and to know that as Christians we are bound to the work of healing the wounds and divisions of our time.
And so this Cathedral, along with its new congregation and its renewed National Cathedral Association, is committed to being that place of healing we are called to be.
Here is our question for today. One hundred years from now, when our successors in this cathedral gather for a weekend such as this, what will be the story they will honor from our second century? Will we have built a Cathedral in living stones worthy of “the great majestic pile,” as Bishop Satterlee called it? Will our successors speak of our audacity in doing something great for God in our time? Will this transcendently beautiful building have