1 Kings 8:2230; 1 Peter 2:110; Matthew 21:1216
The foundation stone of this magnificent cathedral was put in place at noon on September 29, 1907, the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, sometimes called Michaelmas. President Theodore Roosevelt was on hand, as was a crowd of some 10,000 clergy and lay people. That first stone rests, hidden now, beneath the altar of the Bethlehem Chapel directly below the high altar, which is visible to you at the far east end of the cathedral. At noon on the same feast day in 1990, the final stone, an ornately carved pinnacle, was set atop St. Paul’s tower at the southwest corner of this building. Wednesday of this week, another Michaelmas, will mark the 97th anniversary of the laying of the first ceremonial stone and the 14th anniversary of the setting of the last symbolic stone. These two stones, separated by eighty-three years in time and thousands of feet in distance, could be called “alpha and omega stones.” They represent the beginning and the end of the major construction of this magnificent cathedral.
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Ten days ago I had a visit from Billy Cleland, the retired master mason of the cathedral, who probably knows more about the stones that comprise this building than any other person. He asked to see me because, as he contemplates the end of his life, he wants to make sure that his contribution to this remarkable edifice isn’t forgotten. He wants what he knows and feels about this place to be passed along to a succeeding generation. That visit to his cathedral was a way for Billy Cleland to affirm the lasting value of his life and work. I found his love for this place—for the very stones of this place—impressive and deeply moving.
Billy told me things about this surrounding symphony in stone that I had not known before. He described in detail, for example, how he supervised the installation of the powerful figure of Christ in Majesty in the reredos behind the high altar. He told me that it was sculpted from Texas limestone in order to contrast with the surrounding carvings in darker stone from France. He explained that the Christus had to be carved in sections, because a single piece would have been too heavy and unwieldy to install with ease. And with considerable pride he told me how he had personally pulverized pieces of the Texas stone to make a paste and then applied it painstakingly so that the joints in the sculpture would be invisible. While Billy Cleland was neither the sculptor who designed the statue nor the artisan who carved it, he, more than anyone, was responsible for setting this brooding figure in place. There it reigns supreme over all of the cathedral’s other stones.
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The scripture readings today are the same ones that were used when the cathedral was formally consecrated the day after the last pinnacle was set in place. Two of the readings describe events that took place long ago in two other holy sites of importance to both Jews and Christians, the ancient temples of Jerusalem. The passage from I Kings is set in a small but impressive temple built by the great King Solomon. Here we listen as Solomon stands before the altar of Yahweh within the stone walls of the temple and prays that this will be the holy place to which the people of Israel will come for forgiveness.
The reading from Matthew’s gospel depicts Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem a thousand years later. But this is not Solomon’s temple, which was destroyed sometime in the 6th century B.C. This one is the city’s third temple, a grand structure built by Herod the Great and later leveled by Roman legions in 70 A.D. The remnants of this temple can be seen today in the western wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
Jesus is furious. What arouses his anger are the sharp practices of the money changers. These fiscal agents were essential to the ritual practices of temple worship, for at that time religious taxes had to be paid to the temple in local currency, so pious Jews coming to Jerusalem from other parts of the ancient world were forced to patronize the money changers. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this practice opened the way for unscrupulous dealers to cheat confused or naive foreigners, which apparently they did. Reflecting the vision of Solomon for his temple, Jesus joins a verse from Isaiah to some excoriating words of his own. He cries out, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.”
These two stories remind us that a building dedicated to God, whether it be a Jewish temple or a Christian cathedral, whether it exists in the tenth century B.C. or in the first or twenty-first century A.D., needs to stay focused on its primary purpose as a house of prayer.
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The third reading this morning, the one from the First Letter of Peter, is less abstract than the other two. It fashions out of stone two complementary metaphors that challenge each one of us personally. Using imagery from Isaiah and Psalm 118, the author (almost certainly the apostle Peter) refers to Jesus Christ as the cornerstone upon which salvation is built.
In modern translations of the Bible there are two different renderings of Peter’s key word. Some use cornerstone, as in our reading this morning from the New Revised Standard Version. This translation can be somewhat misleading to people in our time and place. Cornerstones, in modern America at least, have a largely symbolic function, as was true for this cathedral in September of 1907. Such stones are laid with proper ceremony. They are inscribed with the date of their laying and, perhaps, with other appropriate words. The cornerstone here reads, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” Often such stones have certain historical items enclosed, like coins and newspapers. While they may be important symbolically, cornerstones today have virtually no structural purpose. They are largely for show.
In biblical times cornerstones were functional not ceremonial. The literal translation of the Greek word for cornerstone is “the stone which is the head of the corner.” In ancient city walls, for example, cornerstones were laid as the foundation upon which all else rested. They were selected for their size and strength, such as the lower stones in the western wall of Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In contemporary consciousness, however, cornerstones are not understood that way. For the most part, they are historic curiosities.
From a purely historical perspective, Jesus Christ may be thought of primarily as an important figure who lived long ago making a huge impact on his own time as a charismatic and revolutionary teacher and healer. His legacy today is a body of somewhat confusing but instructive and challenging teachings, which can be a useful guide for living a worthwhile life. From this viewpoint, the person of Jesus is like this cathedral’s cornerstone, hidden and remote.
The Jerusalem Bible uses another translation for the Greek word in question: keystone rather than cornerstone. This may be a more helpful rendering for our time. The keystone in an arch is always visible and utterly crucial. Look at the Gothic arch closest to you in this cathedral, find the twin keystones at the point of the arch, and imagine what would happen to that arch (and to those below it) if those keystones were suddenly removed.
The Jerusalem Bible version of the verse from Psalm 118 quoted in the second chapter of First Peter reads this way: “The stone rejected by the builders has proved to be the keystone. For Peter and his contemporaries in the first century Christian church, Jesus Christ is the one who holds absolutely everything together.
There is another pertinent architectural feature in Gothic cathedrals like this one. If you look at the ceiling above you, you will see carved round stones at the critical junctures of ceiling ribs. Those stones are called bosses. They too are keystones because they are essential in holding the ceiling structure together. I love the delicious double meaning when the word boss becomes a metaphor for the one we call Lord.
When Jesus Christ is acknowledged as the keystone of our life, everything changes. Our life becomes a solid structure that is able to bear its own weight gracefully in our families, work places and communities. When Christ is our keystone, we become “living stones,” to use the other rock-solid metaphor from First Peter. Living stones, held together by Christ, comprise a grace-filled arch, marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, humility and self-control, all gifts of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.
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At every baptism in this cathedral and all other Episcopal churches, candidates are asked to make three affirmations:
- that they accept Jesus Christ as Savior,
- that they put their whole trust in him, and
- that they will follow and obey him as Lord.
Other Christian traditions require a similar baptismal commitment. All new Christians, therefore, acknowledge from the outset that Christ is the keystone of their life. The challenge, of course, is to live into that reality.
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As we contemplate that daunting life-long task, it would be well to turn once again to Billy Cleland’s Christ in Majesty.That powerful figure, carved in stone, continues to gaze serenely upon us all, holding the world in the palm of its left hand, raising its right hand in benediction. So it is also with the living Christ, who does indeed hold you and me in the palm of his hand and blesses us with the power of his Spirit, as we seek to know and follow him.
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To Jesus Christ, who is the keystone, be thanks and praise, now and forever. Amen.