I can’t recall if I mentioned before having visited the Church of St. Anne’s in Jerusalem. It was over 20 years ago now, but the images, not only of St. Anne’s, but all over Israel were powerful and lasting. The church itself was built originally in 1131, which makes it slightly older than anything in Fargo (!). It was built over a grotto that was believed to be the birthplace of Mary, with her parents Anne and Joachim living close by. You see, we have romanticized where births happened in the Bible, even coming to the point of displaying Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in our creche scenes settled into an alpine looking stable. When you go to Israel, you quickly learn that there really are no stables as such – I believe Luke, who never visited Israel, had some of his facts a bit askew.
Women had their babies in caves. The reason being that the whole childbirth experience was considered ritually unclean (which is why they went through a time of purification after the baby was born). Mary never would have been in an inn, because it wouldn’t be allowed, ritually. Women had the babies in the caves, and then could leave the place without having to go through a purification process for the place of birth.
That’s why when you go to Bethlehem, and visit the church of the Nativity, you see a huge structure, and then take the steps down below the altar to a little cave/grotto, where it was believed Jesus was born. If you go to Ein Karem, the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, if you go to the church/shrine there, you again take the steps below the church into the cave, where John, the Baptist was born. And again, the Church of St. Anne’s has the grotto underneath, where Mary came into this world. Someday, when things get more settled disease- and politics-wise, I’m hoping to take Cheri there, to enjoy getting to know our biblical heritage.
Back to St. Anne’s. Like most every structure before the Middle Ages, St. Anne’s is built out of stone. Though unassuming, it carries a powerful image as you walk in, and realize that for much longer than 1000 years, this church has existed in one form or another.
It also has unbelievable acoustics. The sound reverberates for what seems to be forever. When each tour group goes into the church, they are given the opportunity to sing. Just before our turn came, a group of what seemed to be very self-assured Christians struck up their song – they sang “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Unfortunately, that upbeat, march tempo and loud singing of their hymn just created a huge mess, sound-wise, as the singing notes seemed to almost crash into each other against the walls. After they were satisfied with their work, they left.
Our tour guide just shook his head. He said, “You must understand where you are, and what gift you can offer this morning.” He said, “I want us all to become very quiet for a moment, and then we will sing – slowly – “Amazing Grace.” In the silence, we began to sing the hymn slower than I had ever sung before. Yet, instead of becoming impatient, we began to listen to the echoes of our own voices against the stone. As the song progressed, the moments of pause between the phrases made us gasp. I’m not sure what it will sound like as we sing to God gathered around the throne in heaven, but this must have been close.
When we finished the stanza, no one spoke, as the sound continued to reverberate and fill the church with a holy, joyful sound. It was incredible. The guide said, “What God wants from us is our attention, and our thoughtfulness – not our noise.”
A few years later, as I attended a seminar in which the leader offered a theory of echoes. He tried to explain that in every and any room, unless it is one built to be sound dampening (like a room where one would have their hearing tested), each sound will echo at some level, and the sound will continue to bounce off the walls, continuing to reverberate, even far below our ability to hear it with our human hearing. He said that if we could develop an instrument that was sensitive enough, we could nearly go back in time to hear the sounds of the past that continue to echo at smaller and smaller levels, but never completely disappearing from existence.
That’s always been for me a fascinating and intriguing concept – that whatever is spoken, or yelled, or sung or whispered in any room continues on forever, even when very quickly our ears can no longer pick up the vibrations. Every song I have ever sung, from Vacation bible School to being part of university choirs, in a thousand different arenas and halls, still continue… not only that, but in a room like St. Anne’s, the sound of more than a thousand years exists – just to quiet now for us to hear, but still adding to the songs of the ages. What a powerful thought!
As well, then, we have to consider all the other places where we have brought sound into the world. How many cries of laughter, or quiet words of love and blessing – or, sadly, words that carry that angry or destructive tone to them also continue to live in a room. We are blessed with the gift to offer the sound of life that may exist for hundreds of years to come, so long as the room itself exists. Will we sing of God’s amazing grace, or we will offer curses and angry exchanges? Will our echoing legacy be that of joy and laughter and hope and again, blessing, or will we fill our part of the world with hatred, or those horrible three parts of speech – profanity, obscenity or vulgarity?
I think back of the different rooms in this world that hold the vows and promises that I have made in life, from marriage, to ordination, to baptism – to even funerals. How powerful and humbling to realize those words continue to exist, even beyond my ability to hear it. They are part of our history together. As Jesus said, “Let those who have ears to hear, listen and understand…”
May your day today be filled with speaking and hearing words of joy and love – let’s not fill the space with anything else. Blessings.
Word for the day: smorgasbord. Pronounced (in the English sound) SMOR-gus-board. Up here in the Northland, this is a favorite word, used much more often than “buffet.” However, like many words, it has gone through some significant changes over the years. The word is Swedish, broken down into three smaller words: smor, which means “butter” (in a number of good ol’ Swedish homes, the butter dish has the word “smor” on it, which you hope is something far tastier than it sounds..), gas, which means either a slab of butter, or “goose.” The bord is simply the table, or the boar on which the food is spread out. So, you have a “butter-goose-table,” which makes no sense, until you know that the smorgasbord was originally a small table of cold foods, like bread, butter, goose, fish or other tastes that were offered before the main meal – what we might today call an offering of hors oeuvres – just a little something prior to sitting down for the feast.
Over the years, however, as it became more anglicized, like most meals, it became much larger and complex, so that today, a smorgasbord is truly a buffet, with loads of different hot and cold foods, and lots of breads and butter.
In some of our more Swedish-based towns, or even Norwegian ones, when there is a noon big spread at the café, it’s a smorgasbord. Enjoy, and kom og spis! (come and eat!)
After 43 years of ministry, Randy Cross lived his "fourth life" and shared about retirement, living boldly and intentionally in our world. To be sure, there was some North Dakota thrown in.