Perhaps it was the gold vestments against the crimson carpet at St. Peter’s Pro-Cathedral in Oakland that made the Mass of the Holy Ghost one of such deep beauty. Certainly the chanting from the choir loft behind us enhanced this sense of heaven and earth, the light angelic descants swirling over and around our mortal flesh in the weighty oak pews. It was both solemn and joyous, for we were thankful for our archbishop’s careful care over the last year and were happy to witness the installation of our new bishop.
Saturday’s Mass was one of those moments in history that unites the political and the spiritual. Man has long organized his doings with one another, an activity we call politics, and in this national election year we are keenly aware of this process. We desire freedom and peace, and our national conversations as to how to achieve this in the most equitable manner with the most noble result, occur at set times. We hope and pray that the conversations – the debates, the reportings, and the elections themselves – lead to answers that most of us can live with, peacefully, in community with one another.
Just so the Church, that Body of Christ on earth, must organize its “political” life within the Church in much the same way. We meet yearly to elect and legislate and found and order anew. But we also protect what has gone on before – those things we have found to be good. We conserve and preserve and build upon the old to create and re-create the new.
Man is naturally conservative in this sense, that he must build upon his past for good or ill, and that is why change is often difficult, even painful. Instinctively he holds on to his biography, his ancestral beginnings. Intuitively he honors memory, the recording of history whether it be personal, public, or institutional. Today hundreds of years and thousands of photos and documents can be stored in a tiny chip of metal, retrieved with the flick of a finger, so that flexing the memory muscle is not as needed. Or is it?
It has been observed that we are losing our ability to memorize, losing memory itself, for we have instant access to information. If this is true, then our rituals and storytelling grow even more vital to both nation, church, and temple. Those who have thrown out their past will find their future rootless, their lives or countries or churches built upon sand.
And so as we convened together in meetings and gathered together for meals this last week, our diocese was charged to remember, to build upon our history as we step into the future. We did this through word and sacrament, prayer and praise. We acted out the great drama of our life together kneeling in pews and sitting on folding chairs. We told our stories, giving life to the memory of who we were and are and who we will be. It was rather like weaving a beautiful tapestry, with each one of us adding a thread to the design. Soon we could see the image we had woven – one of faith, hope, and charity.
At St. Peter’s on Saturday the archbishop knocked on the narthex doors. The doors flung open, and thirty clergy processed up the red carpet to the altar, two by two, lead by the thurifer, the torchbearers, and the crucifer. The archbishop came last, shepherding his sheep, regal in gold and holding a shepherd’s crook. The gilded robes looked heavy, the miter pressing, and just so his duties must weigh upon his soul, for he must feed and protect his sheep.
And so the Mass began, and we told our story of God’s great love. We sang our song of confession and absolution, of offering and receiving, of uniting with the eternal in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist. We told our story as we recited creed and read scripture, how God took on flesh to become one of us, to die for us, to live again for us and bring us with him. We told the story again and again, and especially on this Saturday morning in the slanting golden light that fell upon the red tabernacle and white altar, as our archbishop installed our newly elected bishop. We told the story as the bishop received the pectoral cross of our late Bishop Morse, a gesture reminding us to remember our journey to this moment. And we told the story as our bishop received his crozier, to remind him to remember that he must protect and feed his sheep.
As Ruth R. Wisse writes in the Wall Street Journal, “All that has been earned and won cannot be maintained unless it is conserved and reinforced and transmitted and celebrated.” She is speaking of an “optimistic conservatism” seen in the observance of Passover, seen in the American rituals of Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. As individuals, citizens, and believers, we can lose it all if we don’t remember, if we don’t celebrate our stories, if we don’t remember to remember.