New Life from an Old Hymn
Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra, Florida, is the kind of church every pastor, rector, or preacher dreams of. It's got children running about everywhere. It's building yet another parking lot for reasons that are immediately obvious on any given weekend. It has a service on Saturday afternoon and another on Sunday afternoon in order to accommodate the folk who can't come to one of the three traditional services or two contemporary ones that take place on Sunday. In addition, and more or less smished into the middle of all of this on Sunday mornings, there is a Rector's Forum that takes care of direct instruction for adults in Christian living. Beyond all of that, the people have to be about as lively and animated as any group of folk gathered anywhere on a Sabbath morning. I know, because I was there eight weeks ago today, and I haven't gotten over it yet.
I can't claim to be a preacher-and God knows I never, ever wanted to be a pastor or rector-but I can talk. In fact, I'll talk to anybody who'll give me half a chance. And Christ Church, to my great joy, did just that. It was the 6th of July and technically still a holiday weekend, though the technicality did not seem to make any difference to the parishioners' intention to be present for worship.
The nave or seating area of Christ Episcopal is built to be something close to theatre in the round. There is a platform or raised chancel that holds the altar, the lecterns, and the clergy chairs, and is itself surrounded on three sides by rows and rows of pews. Talking from such a configuration is a natural stimulus for me, because it lets me wander about, turning first to one side and then another and back to the center, watching faces as I move. The minute I walked in on Sunday morning and saw the deployment of the pews, I knew we were in business, at least as far as I was concerned. What I had no concept of was the rest of what lay ahead.
To the back of the raised chancel was the organ, albeit discreetly hidden, and the choir loft, also more or less shielded from view. Right on schedule and in complete accord with standard Episcopal operating procedure, as the service began, the choir processed down the center aisle of the nave and up the three chancel steps to their place in the choir loft beyond. Behind the choir came the priest in charge of the service, with the officiating deacon and me in tow behind him. The service commenced, as the service always does in Anglican worship, with a collect or two, a hymn or two, and the reading of the day's lessons from first the Old Testament and then from the gospel.
After the gospel lesson appointed for the day, it was my turn to stand up and move about that wondrous chancel, talking to all those shining faces and telling a story or two from the Bible. Episcopalians of whatever degree of enthusiasm do not appreciate overmuch homilizing. Ten minutes tops will do quite nicely, as a rule. In good time, I finished and sat down. The priest moved us through the recitation of the Creed, the prayers, the confession of sin, the absolution, and even through the passing of the peace and the parish announcements. At that point, he and the order of service both called for the offering to be taken. Again, right on schedule. What I hadn't counted on was the offertory anthem.
The ushers were doing their thing with passing the collection plates up and down the rows when the organ commenced and from somewhere behind me there was the rustle of a human being rising to sing.
And then he did.
Oh, dear Lord in Heaven, he did:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
And then he let loose with "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah," and I could hardly breathe.
I had not heard the song in years. I had never heard the song as it was sung in those moments. It had nothing to do with a particular country and everything to do with the glory of being Christian, alive, and human:
I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
"As you deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal";
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
And then, as I thought I could bear no more. He sang:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free
While God is marching on