Dearly Beloved in Christ,
The Advent countdown to Christmas is upon us and with it Saint Thomas’ wondrous programs of music and liturgy. With the secular version of holiday season crowding upon us, I am increasingly grateful for what the Church offers; namely the Advent and the Incarnation of the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. This year, though, there is a big difference which makes me especially grateful for the purple expectation and penitence of the Advent season. I am thinking of Superstorm Sandy, from Monday October 29 onward, the like of which we have not seen in our lives. Its aftermath continues, unfolding not just for weeks and months, but likely much longer. I have kept some notes since the storm, and as I reread them, they seem to be a fitting source for reflection as we at Saint Thomas prepare to celebrate the Nativity of Jesus.
NOTES ON AN EPIC STORM
I was returning from a seminary board meeting in Nashotah, Wisconsin on Friday October 26 when I first heard that a hurricane called Sandy was on course strangely to move north from the tropics, out in the Atlantic along the East Coast, and, as it did, join up with a Nor’easter, turn west, and land right on New York City and environs. My flight home surrealistically landed at LaGuardia ahead of schedule. The weather reports grew clearer and more ominous, and we had some time to prepare. A miraculous providence turned out to be the fact that our boy choristers were away and at home for their midterm break. On Sunday October 28 the 11 am Choral Eucharist was sung by the Gentlemen of the Choir under the direction of Dr. Fred Teardo on his last Sunday before departing for Birmingham, Alabama. The 4 pm Festal Evensong was very sparsely attended as people were heading for shelter before the storm’s arrival late that night. Fred’s departure travels presented their own adventures. We closed the church and cancelled all services for Hurricane Monday and Tuesday. The church opened again on Wednesday October 31, and although we resumed the regular daily schedule, we cancelled the Men’s Voices Choral Evensongs because of the impossibility of most all travel except for walking. Now some notes:
• Beginning Sunday night the 28th and continuing through the whole storm, several staff stayed overnight at the church to watch for the security of the building.
• At the Choir School, where the boys were away and on their break, the Headmaster and a few staff remained, where they witnessed, just over a street block away, the terrifying spectacle of the dangling crane across from Carnegie Hall on 57th Street, an 80-ton boom swinging freely like a broken toy on a string in the wind. The Choir School was in the restricted zone but did not have to be evacuated. Food delivery and the scheduled return not only of the boys but of the staff were in question. The possibility of reopening the school was on hold all week.
• On Wednesday the 31st, by which time the winds had mostly passed on from the city, Bishop-coadjutor Andrew Dietsche called the rectory. He was checking on all the Manhattan rectors to see how we were. No one at Saint Thomas was killed or physically injured; though a number of staff and members suffered material losses. Our buildings were secure, I said, far more than a year before with the deluge of Hurricane Irene; but then there was that dangling crane so near the Choir School. I asked him if we were going to have our Diocesan Convention, scheduled for Saturday November 3 in Tarrytown. “You’re about the thirtieth person to ask me that,” he replied. It was postponed – for the second year in a row on account of a storm (remember, on October 29, 2011, the freak snow storm?) – to November 17 and moved to the cathedral. On Friday November 2, I ran into Bishop Dietsche on Central Park South. He was bicycling around Manhattan to see things for himself; he is an extraordinary pastor. We both got a close look at the crane. There was no way the Choir School could reopen until it was secured. Amazingly, this would be accomplished over the weekend, and the boys and staff were able to return Monday night November 5th.
• My wife Nancy, scheduled to return on Wednesday October 31 from a month-long pilgrimage from Rome across Italy to the Adriatic Sea, had her flight home cancelled yet miraculously landed in Newark on Thursday evening. On Saturday she made a trip to hard-hit Staten Island; then another, to help with relief efforts. Then she gave a presentation of her pilgrimage to the Senior Fellowship on Wednesday November 7. Her theme was gratitude.
• On Saturday November 3, while the Saint Thomas soup kitchen volunteers were working to distribute their usual 350 lunches, Pro Musica, a choir from Mexico City scheduled to perform that day at Carnegie Hall but prevented by the dangling crane across the street, sang several pieces on the chancel steps of Saint Thomas. It was one of the best grace notes of a hard week which had many grace notes amidst its hardships.
• On Sunday November 4 we kept the Solemnity of All Saints without the boys, the Men of the Choir singing a different repertoire beautifully reworked by Dr. Scott, who had his own difficulties returning from a recital trip in Canada. We cancelled that Sunday’s Evensong because the boys were away and the men did not have time to rehearse two entirely reworked services. The ensuing week, which featured a concert of Brahms’ German Requiem, unfolded with the full Choir of Men and Boys and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Two days earlier, gazing at the crane with the Headmaster and then the Bishop, I could not have conceived this happening.
• Power was out for people living in Manhattan on 39th Street and south. At the end of the island the storm surge flooded many buildings and destroyed electrical systems. NYU Hospital was safely evacuated in the midst of the storm, and some members of the Saint Thomas family were among the evacuees.
• This hurricane, unlike last year’s Hurricane Irene which was a downpour for Manhattan, was an overwhelming wind event. Its storm surges devastated not only lower Manhattan, but low-lying areas of Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey – some of these areas permanently. In Westchester County and Connecticut the wind downed innumerable trees and power lines. Many, like my son Matthew and his family, were without power, running water, and heat for well over a week; and gasoline was hard to get. Many tens of thousands of utility workers came from around the country to help.
• The staff at Saint Thomas was admirable, even heroic, throughout the storm. Some came from as far as Pennsylvania by bus and then on foot. Some made treks from outer boroughs for walks as long as four hours to make the ministry happen and to cover vital shifts. Their cheerful spirit is inspiring. Some said how grateful they are for their work and, candidly, how good it was to get out! Everyone had cabin fever after three or four days.
• We worked to identify and contact members suffering from the storm. Pastoral Care Coordinator Linda Morfi and others, including volunteers, contacted people as we were able – for so many had no electricity. Parishioners without power stayed with those who had it. Many parishioners’ jobs downtown are still adversely affected by the damage to electrical equipment. Some made trips to check on parishioners in Staten Island and contributed to relief centers there. The parish family on Sunday November 4 did a lot of checking up and connecting and comparing notes. Some staff and parishioners’ homes were flooded; some had their wherewithal ruined; some still face difficult commutes. Some parishioners delivered necessities and mucked out a flooded first floor for a fellow parishioner. Some parishioners among those with big losses were exemplary in extending their own volunteer assistance to others!
• The Vestry quickly made a substantial donation of our emergency funds to Episcopal Charities of the Diocese of New York for hurricane relief. Parishioners and friends made subsequent donations so that we were able to make a second contribution to the cause. Episcopal Charities delivers on-the-ground direct services through the various agencies of the parishes of the Diocese. In our Diocese this is focused on Staten Island and other affected areas; and it partners with neighboring dioceses to reach those in the damaged areas of Long Island and New Jersey.
• The printer of our Sunday leaflets and many other publications for the time being has to outsource our work because the storm surge flooded his machines. For two Sundays we produced homemade leaflets.
• Oh yes, and we had a presidential election Tuesday November 6! With the storm as the backdrop to everything, I was thinking at the poll how we citizens all resembled a great secular communion service as we waited in line to vote. It is a rite we should never take for granted as we confer such power peacefully, even during wartimes – this time in the wake of a storm for the record books.
• By Sunday November 11 we were in full operation. Following the well-attended and well received Brahms concert, we then had the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with us once again for Remembrance Sunday and the Faure Requiem at 11 am. Given the deaths and the suffering caused by the storm, this music was a very fitting offering to make. Many found it a tonic for the soul.
• Saint Thomas Church proved to be, as it was in the wake of 9/11, a sanctuary for many. It was good that we were open. It was good that we resumed the full schedule as soon as possible. Our mission to be in midtown in our beautiful church as a haven of prayer and peace, and “to worship, love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage,” was once again thrown into sharp relief for all to see and hear. I also witnessed a staff, parish, and choir school family aglow with charity, cheerful generosity, courage and self-sacrifice. In a word, I saw the Body of Christ at work.
O LITTLE TOWN OF BETHLEHEM
What does Superstorm Sandy have to do with Christmas? Well, let’s see. The Angel Gabriel greeted the Blessed Virgin Mary with the news that Mary would become the mother of Christ. How could this be, for I know not a man, she asked the Angel. She was only betrothed to her husband-to-be Joseph. The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, said the angel, and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee. Thus the Child truly will be the Son of God. Mary consented, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. This happened in Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived and which was to be Jesus’ hometown. But if Christ was conceived in Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem, the City of David, because of an imperial decree concerning a tax census. There was no room at the inn, because of massive dislocation caused by Caesar’s order. They stayed in a stable, and the baby Jesus had a manger for his bed.
Saint Luke tells the Nativity story from Mary’s perspective. If we move to Saint Matthew, we have the Nativity from Joseph’s point of view. It is congruent with Luke’s but Joseph’s initial doubts about Mary’s pregnancy included his thoughts to “put her away privily.” The angel of God in a dream told Joseph not to fear, as the angel likewise had reassured Mary; for this Child is directly from God, God’s Son. But Matthew says that not only was Bethlehem crowded; it was lethally dangerous. King Herod the Great, known for his brutality in any case, decided to kill all the newborn children in Bethlehem – he perceived a political threat in what he heard about this Child from the Eastern Magi who were searching for him. At the angel’s warning, the Holy Family soon were to become refugees in Egypt. They were not to return to the Holy Land and to Nazareth until the death of Herod. Jesus Christ was born in a world of inconvenience, dislocation, terror, and flight. Don’t let the tinsel hide from you the reality of Christ’s Nativity. It resembles Holy Week and Good Friday. It reveals the price God has always known he must pay for his love for sinners.
Superstorm Sandy blows away all the things in the world that we rely on as props, and it reintroduces us to the hard reality of our daily dependence on God. It has taught us afresh what is important in human life; that is, love and kindness, generosity and helping hands. This is the world addressed by the Incarnation, the Ministry and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus. This is what the Church is for: to give us the clear Good News of Jesus Christ.
At the Diocesan Convention which was postponed to November 17, Bishop Dietsche gave what really was his first episcopal address. Bishop Sisk leaves us in January for his retirement, and Bishop Dietsche is installed as Diocesan on Saturday February 2 at the cathedral. I am deeply devoted to and grateful for Bishop Sisk and his years as my Bishop. But I was heartened to hear the clear Christ-centeredness of his successor. The two Bishops made a most graceful public succession before our eyes at the Convention. Then Bishop Dietsche addressed head-on the fears of a declining church with shrinking resources, not by bromides or schemes for institutional self-preservation, certainly not by denial; but by asking, why are we here? What does God want from us? The Bishop threw us back onto the heart of the matter. Whether we serve amidst the poverty of the Bronx or the temples of mammon in Manhattan, whether we are on Staten Island or in Westchester; what God wants is the proclamation of the Word and the doing of the Work of Jesus Christ his Son. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us!
So here we still are, in the midst of Manhattan’s mall. Why are we here? Do not let the secular world’s Happy Holidays drown out the truth of what makes for a Merry Christmas – the knowledge that the Son of God really has taken our nature upon him, has been born in our flesh, has shared our lot, and has come to give us life, life of real abundance lasting beyond death and on into eternity.
It is such a privilege to celebrate Advent and Christmas here at Saint Thomas. May God bless each of you in the worship of Christ and the celebration of his Birth.
Faithfully your Priest and Rector,
Andrew C. Mead