December 18, 2020

A Christmas Message from the Dean

Christmas is a week away. This past Sunday, December 13th, the Cathedral and its magnificent choir offered a glorious Christmas concert on the front steps of the Cathedral to a crowd of about 500 people standing on the sidewalk and street. Soon after the concert ended and the choir had departed, a man stood on the top step in front of the great bronze doors and began firing the two guns he held. The audience quickly began to flee and two policemen engaged the shooter who kept yelling “Shoot me! Kill me!” The policemen urged him to put down his weapons, but the man refused and was ultimately killed. A tragic end to a beautiful moment in the life of the Cathedral.

I must commend the Cathedral staff, especially our Security team and Maintenance team, for their bravery in that awful moment; how thankful we all are for their competence and heroism. The Cathedral community is still feeling the aftershocks and sorting out the many levels of this terrible experience. There are some bullet marks on the central portal column and they will be repaired. There are two bullet marks on the great bronze doors (named “The Portals of Paradise”) and I will leave them there as reminders of our need for redemption and that violence exists in human life even as we approach our heavenly goal.

The Sub Dean and I are speaking with members of the staff individually and in groups to care for them as together we sift through the experience and trauma. The Vicar of St. Saviour is gathering with the congregation with wonderful pastoral care. We will get through this, wounded in some ways but strong and hopeful and healed as we move ahead.

Even in this moment in our life, with the violence experienced on Sunday and the Pandemic plowing its ragged furrow through our nation and world, the Christmas message is proclaimed in all its glory and message of hope.

The message of Christmas is about trust. The birth of Jesus, God taking on our mortal flesh to proclaim in a stupendous way that God places his trust in humanity. And for humanity, the Christmas message is that we can place our trust in God. Ian Markham, the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary, puts it this way:

“The Christian hope says to us all that the moment we are in is the moment when we must trust. The act of trust is the act of knowing that God is present in our journey; the act of trust is knowing that we have an obligation to be there for others…”

Christmas is God’s profound statement that we can put our trust in God since now God and humans are eternally and irrevocably bound together; and no evil can break that bond. The Christmas message is that we can put our hope in God, and that hope will not be disappointed.

Christmas also proclaims the trust God places in us. In the Garden of Eden humankind learned to distrust God, with terrible consequences, lived out in violence, hatred, division, exploitation and discord. The birth of Jesus, the God-man, is God’s proclamation that he is rebuilding the creation and renewing the human heart. Fallible and frail as our spirits are, God trusts us! In the divine trust planted in our souls, a call is issued. Part of that call is to look at last Sunday’s tragedy through the lens of this trust God has placed in us.

Last Sunday’s event does not exist in isolation. It is linked to the larger misery and tragedy of humanity and creation. It is also linked to the Christmas call and the trust God has placed in us as ambassadors of the inbreaking new creation God announced at Jesus’ birth.

The call Christmas issues is a call to our Cathedral and all Christians to care in more and concrete ways. The call is to renew our commitment as Christians to work for an eradication of gun violence, the brutality of prison life, a stronger safety net for troubled youth and those suffering from mental illness. The trust God places in us means we must be there for others: in their sorrows, their difficulties, their hopes and fears. We are called to work for justice, equity and equality, to end hunger and discrimination in all its forms, to protect the environment and insure the dignity of every person.

The proclamation of Jesus’ birth is that God is with us and all humanity in an unshakable and unbreakable way. The message is that God has placed his trust in us. To respond to that divine gift of trust is to live in hope, generosity, kindness and goodwill. And that is the true gift of Christmas.

A blessed and joyful Christmastide to you from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine!