Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Service at the National Cathedral

I attended the Thanksgiving Day Holy Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral today. But two winters ago, on the first weekend in February of last year, I was at the Cathedral College for a weekend retreat on Centering Prayer. That Saturday, cold and rainy afternoon, a single bell tolled from the Cathedral bell tower at least 60 times, slowly and heavily, rotund with emotion. I lost count, but the sound seemed to go on and on and on, like the mist, that afternoon. There was a funeral and after the service the bell tolled in sadness. And I had just learned the night before that my mother had cancer.

It's a tender time now because my mom died less than a week after Thanksgiving last year. The night before we worked furiously with her doctors to get her out of the hospital so we could all have Thanksgiving safely at home. She'd been in the hospital for nearly three weeks and had discovered during that time that the cancer was back. But she was ready to come home and we were ready for her - with a bed, a baby monitor, television set up, flowers, nebulizer, home nurse, oxygen tank, wheelchair - and lots of love.

I can hardly believe that a year has past. It feels like eons and it feels like moments. And it still feels pretty awful. At the Thanksgiving service, despite the fact that I could hardly get through an entire verse, a stranger complemented me on my singing, which was nice, especially because my mom often did.

A Welsh folk tune, borrowed from my childhood hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship of 1978 was the hymn before the sermon.
Let all things now living a song of thanksgiving to God the creator triumphantly raise, who fashioned and made us, protected and stayed us, who still guides us onto the end of our days. God's banners are o'er us, his light goes before us, a pillar of fire shining forth in the night, till shadows have vanished and darkness is banished, as forward we travel from light into light.

The second verse speaks of the "stars in their course and sun in its orbit." And the preacher told a tale of a friend who'd seen the Aurora Borealis and how it'd affected her. It made her slow down, to feel instead of think, to allow her to be aware that she was of something larger than herself. The word "consider" from its Latin roots - means "with the stars" or "to observe with the stars." so that consideration and contemplation was always meant to take you out of your own world, your own universe. (For more on etymology, click here.)

She also spoke of the flower star gazers. And how they represented the life of contemplation, and how stargazers were thought to have arms open to God and arms open in service to our neighbors. You can listen to the entire sermon of Reverend Canon Carol Wade here.

The closing hymn was an Easter tune, Lasst uns efreuen, a melody written in 1623. The introduction started and I recognized it immediately. My religious heritage and understanding is one of my most treasured gifts from my mother. And I thought how appropriate, given where my mind was, that the service would close with a hymn that I associated with the celebration of the resurrection. It was a comfort.

The melody has at least two versions in the Episcopalian hymnbook - #400 and #618. We sang a version of #400 which was set to words of St. Francis of Asssi -
All creatures of our God sing praise, with thankful hearts your voices raid, O sing praises! Alleluia! O Brother Sun with golden beam, O Sister Moon with silver gleam! O sing praises! O sing praises! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

As I left, the bells were ringing more hymns. The day was warm and I sat in the garden while I called my family from my mobile phone. The bells were joyous, uplifting, melodious and quite different from another sound of those bells on a colder, dreadful day earlier last year. The sounds heartened and yielded a glimmer of hope.

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