Barry Swain at the diamond jubilee of consecration of the Church of the Resurrection, New York City
One of the hallmarks of the catholic faith is how frequently, for the seven sacraments, for sacramental rites, and for ordinary life, we take a gift from God and give it to him, and he gives it back, blessed and changed. That is the root of baptism: a baby or adult with original sin is given to God, washed by ordinary water, and in a sacramental mystery given back by God to us, a new person with a completely innocent new start in life. It is the root of the Blessed Sacrament: God gives wheat and grapes, man fashions them by his God-given talents into bread and wine, and gives them to God, and God gives back to man these same gifts which are now his own body and blood.
This has its parallel in nature also. When I was a child, I was threatened, as many were, that if I was not a good boy, I would receive only a lump of coal at Christmas. Perhaps you heard this as well. I think it’s less fashionable to-day, if only because children are allowed to do whatever they like. But think of coal. When I was a little boy it was still used a fair bit to power factories and lots of older houses in cities, including our own. Coal was delivered and fell down into the coal bin, which was dusty and sooty, and filthy. There is one in the basement of both our buildings. Riding on steam trains and ocean liners created dirty coal dust smoke. When you touch coal, it’s soft, it breaks easily and it gets you dirty fast. But what happens to coal when it is in the right place in the earth and under great pressure over millions of years – that is to say, under the forces of Nature, that is, God? The molecules are arranged now in straight lines, and it becomes something different. That filthy lump of coal becomes a diamond, the hardest substance there is, that can write on glass, and brilliant, smooth and beautiful, one of the most prized things in the world. Married and widowed ladies probably have one on their hands right now, and at night, any lady could have them in various places. As Marilyn Monroe says in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, when she discovers the existence of tiaras, ‘I always love finding new places to wear diamonds, don’t you?’
So it was with this church. In 1866, the small group of people who had been meeting together took a great leap of faith, and started a parish church. In 1868, they took a bigger one, borrowed money, and retained the famous architect James Renwick Jr., already well known for the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and for Grace Church on Lower Broadway, and at work already on St Patrick’s Cathedral. The church was designed and the materials were selected: bricks, stone, mortar, glass, lead, marble, and wood. Windows and doors were fashioned, pews and the pulpit put in (both of which are still here), and the high altar was carved and put in place, the very same one you’re looking at now. The baptismal font was made of marble and put in the west end, the very same one you passed on your way in, to remind you that you had to pass through baptism to become a member of Christ’s Church and to pass to any of the other six sacraments. These ordinary materials, easily had from nature, were put together by man’s ingenuity to form this building. It was, of course, a product of its mid-Victorian time, and naturally, it looks it.
But this building, built by Mr Renwick and that little group of people, became the place they met God. Think of the thousands and thousands of babies and adults baptized at that font. Think of the thousands of children confirmed at this altar rail. Think of the thousands of people who came to the Sacrament of Penance here with their consciences burdened, and left with a lightness of heart, knowing God had forgiven their sins. Think of the millions of times people have received Holy Communion at these altars. Think of the thousands of people who have either come here, or received a priest from here, who anointed their sick bodies, and either received from God healing or preparation for a holy and hopeful death. Think of those ordained here, not too many perhaps, but one as recently as 2004. Think of the thousands joined in holy matrimony here, beginning a hopeful new life together. And finally think of the thousands whose funerals were here, who, fortified by the rites of the Church, went forth to their graves with the prayers of their friends and families from this very church.
God was pressing that coal, preparing it. Finally, in 1957, 89 years after it was built, this church was free from all debt, and could be given to God. The twelfth Bishop of New York, Horace Donegan, came here on the first Sunday of February 1957 and, following the ancient rites of the Church, blessed and hallowed and consecrated this church, and gave it for ever to be what it had already informally become: the House of God and the Gate of Heaven. Unlike many churches, consecrated at the beginning of their lives, ours was consecrated after eighty-nine years of sanctified use. There’s something very nice about that – by the time Bishop Donegan consecrated it, it had already been consecrated by eighty-nine years of those rites and ceremonies we just have thought about, and it was as filled with prayers by then as it was filled with incense and candle soot! On the first Sunday of February 1957, the process was complete, God Almighty had prepared with his own forces this lump of coal, and when Bishop Donegan took off his mitre that day, and Father Chambers hung up his cope, and they went downstairs to the hall, they knew what had happened, not just that day, but that day as a culmination of 89 years: the lump of coal had been turned by God into a diamond. A diamond to glisten and attract, a diamond to be cherished as an object of great worth, a diamond to be perfect and beautiful to show everyone what mankind, with God’s help, can do. It has continued to be beautified. As the great British architect of churches of the nineteenth century, Sir George Gilbert Scott said, ‘Every church should look the most beautiful it ever has, at the moment you see it.’ I hope that’s true of ours, and I think it is. We don’t stop adorning the House of God and the Gate of Heaven, because it still has so much work to do for us, and for our descendants in this place.
But the changing of coal into diamonds wasn’t only accomplished on this building. It is also worked on all of us who find God here in his house, guided by the lamp before the tabernacle just as the Magi were to Bethlehem, and who find the gate of heaven here at the beginning or at the end of life. For each one of us is a lump of coal at the beginning – a creation of God, to be sure, but one of uncertain fate, for that decision is ours. This was true of Jacob having his dream and Zacchaeus up in his tree. But for those of us here, and for our thousands and thousands of ancestors in the faith here, those whose names we know, and those we do not, this was the place where God worked on those lumps of coal, and with pressure, sometimes easy and gentle, sometimes hard to bear and bitter, but always loving and with his purpose in mind, those lumps of coal, those of us past, present and future, were polished by God and turned into diamonds – some of them, diamonds which now adorn heaven, heaven of the God whose house here they met him in, and heaven the gate of which they went through here, right here, in this place. For 149 years, men, women and children have prayed here, received the Sacraments, learnt about God, and drew near to him. For 60 years, this has been God’s consecrated home. That is a great deal to be thankful for, and we are. But it is also a great deal of reason to be hopeful as we look forward. And we should be.
Canon Barry Swain, the Rector of the Church of the Resurrection, preached this sermon there on 5 February 2017.