Harrowing Of Hell
April 20, 2019

The Great Vigil

Preacher: The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

To listen to the sermon click here.

We welcome you home this beautiful night. Home is an interesting word which can sometimes be rather thoughtlessly lumped together with the place we live — the apartment, the condo, the “house.” But it is not the same thing. In my hometown in Montana, we have, as do many Main Streets in the United States, a shrinking downtown. But we still have stores, including two gift shops where we go to buy gifts. One of them that has been around for a long time, although at two distinct locations, is the Country Junction. It is a purveyor of kitchen and home items – many of which favor, as the name might suggest, “Country décor” which includes a lot of plaques with quotes that tell us about the difference between a house and a home – some are wooden with raffia—you know the kind of thing… But while they most certainly wouldn’t be grace the interior of a Parisian salon, the sentiments on these plaques are pretty sound…  probably the most ubiquitous is “Home is where the heart is.” But some other lovely thoughts are: “It takes hands to build a house, but only hearts can build a home;” “It’s not how big the house is, it’s how happy the home is;” and “A house is built of wood and stone, but only love can make a home.” We could dismiss them as absolutely sappy right? But there is a truth there that strikes a chord nonetheless. Haven’t you ever been to a place and felt absolutely unwelcome?  It can happen in a place that is exquisitely decorated and manicured – with not even a blade of grass out of place and it can happen, too, in a space that is rather ordinary. But a home – a home is somewhere different – it is a place where you go, almost instinctively, like monarch butterflies, or geese, or salmon… A place we know deep down in the bones of our soul where we go when we need to be fed, we need to rest, when we need to be inspired, when we need to weep. Home. That is home. And our heart is there.

In our gospel reading this evening, we will hear the story of the faithful women who visit Jesus’ tomb in early dawn with the spices for the preparation of his body. However, when they get to the tomb, they find the stone rolled away but Jesus’ body gone. While trying to wrap their minds around this, they meet two men in dazzling clothes which, of course, was terrifying but the men tell them that, of course, Jesus’ body is not there – “He is not here. He has risen.” And then the women remembered Jesus’ words and realized that, indeed, Jesus had risen, and they return to Jerusalem to pass on this good news to the disciples.  Who promptly dismiss it as an idle tale. Today we don’t use this phrase ‘idle tale’ as much as we use the phrase, ‘old wives’ tale’ but both phrases refer to the beliefs of the person who hears the story rather than, necessarily the story itself. And in this case, the disciples do not believe the story of these women—they did not believe Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them.  Maybe the disparaging tone of the phrase ‘old wives’ tale’ tells us why. But, regardless of the disciples’ initial beliefs or cultural biases, we owe an awful lot to – in fact, we are here tonight—because of a story that was initially dismissed as utter nonsense, an idle tale—an old wives’ tale.

This week we have been mourning the devastation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. We have heard the grief of people all over the world. In response after response, people have said that the ancient Cathedral was the ‘heart’ of the City—the heart of France. One French commentator trying to explain the immensity of the situation to the American audience said – this is for France, like the World Trade Center. And while I felt a momentary pang with this juxtaposition of a Cathedral as the heart of France and a Trade Center as the heart of America – of course I knew what she meant. It was not the same.  The symbolism was not same nor were tragedies. The fire at the Cathedral killed no one, the tragedy on 9/11 killed 2996 people.

 But I knew what she meant. She meant that the Cathedral fire took away something more than the ‘forest’ of support beams – flying buttresses– that held up the ceiling. It took away more than the gargoyles and the stone work and the toppled spire. The fire at the Cathedral took away a sense of permanence, a sense of history, a sense of the very soul of the City. Monday, something changed in Paris – something changed in the imagination of the world.

Several years ago, I worked at Trinity Wall Street. One thing that some of you might not know is that Trinity Wall Street is not just an Episcopal Church that sits between Rector and Wall Street– it still has two of its chapels – one way up town and one just a few blocks away on Fulton and Broadway; St. Paul’s Chapel. And, of course, St. Paul’s Chapel was situated across the street from the World Trade Center. The little chapel not only survived the Great fire of 1776 that destroyed Trinity Church itself, it also survived the 9/11 attacks both roof and building were structurally sound with only one cracked window. St Paul’s was shielded from a falling steel beam from the North Tower and hurtling debris by a hundred-year-old sycamore tree that absorbed the blow and then fell in such a way that its branches protected the structure.

St. Paul’s, both the oldest existing church and the oldest public building in continuous use in New York City is, for America, very old. Our first president, walking down from Federal Hall after his inauguration, worshipped there.  And it was saved, from a force equivalent to a small atomic bomb by a sycamore tree. It sounds like an old wives’ tale. But there it stood while the America all around it changed on 9/11.  During this difficult time, the little chapel became revitalized as a haven and a resting spot—a home– for the rescue workers, firefighters, construction workers and others that worked in the ruins of the felled Twin Towers. Tom Geraghty, a construction worker whose sister-in-law was a victim of the attacks, said he ‘cursed God’ until he found the chapel. He said St. Paul’s was simultaneously a ‘kitchen, a therapist’s couch, a little stage on Broadway (where Jeremy would accompany Broadway singers who came to sing for the workers), a bedroom, an art gallery, and a doctor’s office….a place to get my thoughts and emotions back on track.”

I arrived at Trinity after this time, but the Chapel still was a place that belonged to the City and the World. Worshipping at St. Paul’s, like so many cathedrals in Europe, meant worshipping in the midst of the constant swirl of visitors and tourists. But knowing that our liturgies and our prayers were not interrupted by their presence, but made deeper still, was our call — our gift to those seeking refuge. We were called to welcome—to make ours a house of prayer for all people — a spiritual home for the whole world.

The old wives’ tale that the women told the disciples was difficult for the disciples to understand because they had always thought that Jesus’ kingdom should be an earthly one.  So, with Jesus’ death, their hopes were utterly dashed. For them there was nothing more to hope for. Their hearts were broken. The women,  though, as they sought to honor Jesus’ body, with the help of the two heavenly visitors were able to remember the words of Jesus and take them to heart.  Of course, they should not be looking for living among the dead. He is risen!

The prophet Isaiah would have explained the women’s hope in this way, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

So, while we may mourn the damage to the over 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral, the miracle of this Cathedral is no less than the miracle of St. Paul’s Chapel. In the 1500’s most of its windows, deemed idolatrous, were destroyed by Huguenots. In the 1700’s many of the Cathedral’s treasures were destroyed in the French Revolution. And by the 1900’s, the Cathedral was in danger of collapse and was about to be to torn down when it was saved by an unlikely hero – a hunchback created by Victor Hugo who renewed interest in the grand dame of Paris and led to a campaign that raised money to restore her. Both churches have emerged from the ashes time and again to serve their people.

 St. Paul’s, the unharmed building that survived the birth of America as the city around it burned, in our recent history came to serve those who searched for hope and human remains amongst the wreckage of the fallen towers. It ministers to a fearful America that had lost its sense of security.

The damaged Cathedral of Paris, too, is bringing together the faithful from around the world. While, outside of Paris, most probably didn’t think about the Cathedral often, still they found their hearts breaking. And we rejoiced when we learned that precious relics purportedly dating from the time of Christ were saved — the crown of thorns that was said to have adorned Jesus’ head; a piece of wood and the nails believed to be part of the original cross. Skeptics would tell us the legends surrounding these items are most likely false. They would say if all the pieces of the cross sold by purveyors of religious tchotchkes/artifacts during medieval times to faithful, if guileless, pilgrims were put together, you would have had a miles-high cross. And nonbelievers would probably suggest that if scientific tests done on the crown of thorns, it would be revealed as a hoax. But these artifacts have, nonetheless, become beloved objects of devotion that have drawn the faithful to Notre Dame for hundreds of years. And the sentiment behind this devotion is real.

An even bigger circle of people – outside of the community of believers rejoiced to hear that much of the Cathedral survived the fire and many of the irreplaceable and beautiful works of art were unharmed– including the Pieta statue of Mary cradling her dead son entitled the Descent from the Cross. And they breathed a collective sigh of relief when the three beautiful Rose windows remained intact. One of those windows, the North rose window, dates back to the 13th century and depicts Old Testament figures surrounding the Virgin Mary. Like our own rose window which also depicts Mary, its beauty has inspired generations who have entered that holy place.

While in the public imagination Cathedrals and churches seem to play an ever-shrinking role in our lives – in our cities and communities—the gifts of the Church are still desperately needed. We serve as a junction between the human realm and the Divine. We serve as a place where those whose hearts are broken—whose lives seem hopeless—can come home. Our importance is sometimes felt most strongly at times of tragedy – when a loved one dies or when families or communities suffer. While we know God cannot be contained within brick or stone, the love, faith and prayers of believers do, indeed, change these spaces and make our Cathedrals and churches homes for the spirit. And this home is not just for us, but for the next generation of believers like baby Yvette and the visitors and seekers that God sends us.

Yes, atheists and humanists may discard the church and our beliefs as sappy and sentimental at best – but our ‘idle tale’ – the old wives’ tale about the resurrection of Jesus continues to be felt and experienced in our lives and  deep down in the bones of our souls. And this is why we almost instinctively come here tonight. This is why the faithful of Paris, even while they watched their beloved cathedral burn, sang a song of faith to honor their blessed Lady of Paris….Notre Dame

Ave Maria sung.

Welcome Home.