Celebrating a beautiful house of God
This year, we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. In September, I celebrated a Mass commemorating the occasion, and I wanted to share my homily from that important celebration with you.
“Can it indeed be that God dwells on earth?
If the heavens and the highest heavens cannot contain you, how much less this temple which I have built!” (I Kings 8:22-23, 27-30)
As he speaks, King Solomon, son of King David, stands before the temple he has built, the one which will hold the Ark of the Covenant, the representation of the presence of God in the midst of his people. Solomon is struck by what he has done. He has built a house for God. But, then, he realizes what he is saying. And so, he asks, whether any house can hold the mighty God. Our answer would be that God is, of course, not able to be contained in the houses of worship we set aside for Him, but they are places in which He has chosen to live in His Son, Jesus. Here, in the beauty of a sacred space, we can contemplate His beauty and raise our voices in praise to Him for the goodness of His love and mercy. But we can also encounter God in the tabernacle, in Jesus, present there for our prayer and our consolation. By so doing, we believe that each of us can become ourselves a house of God, insofar as our prayer helps us to seek God’s grace so that we might live as He calls us to live.
One of the first things that Bishop David Bacon determined to do as the first bishop of Portland was to build a “magnificent church,” a new cathedral for the new diocese. It would be the house of God where the new diocese would gather as Church. It would be a tribute to Mary, the Mother of God, under her title of the Immaculate Conception. It would be a manifestation of the understanding that, “of all the churches in the diocese, the most important is the cathedral church, which is a sign of the unity of the particular Church” (AS 155).
It was 150 years this morning, September 8, 1869, feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, that this cathedral was dedicated. In the dedication, a beautiful building becomes, through the grace of God, the house of God and a house of prayer. We remember that day with gratitude as we profit from being able to pray in this beautiful house of God.
The day of dedication was one of rejoicing. The cathedral was, in the opinion of those present, “one of the finest in the country.” In its construction, many hardships had been suffered, including a devastating fire on July 4, 1866, which destroyed almost half of the city of Portland and all of the buildings that Bishop Bacon had built.
On the day of the cathedral’s dedication, the weather was bad. It was foggy and rainy. No outside procession was possible. As the day went on, the wind picked up and the storm became worse. Monsignor Marc Caron, in his wonderful address in the spring about the history of the cathedral, recounted that it was probably a hurricane which blew into town. A casualty of the freak storm was the cathedral’s steeple which blew over landing on the house across Cumberland St. Fortuitously, no one was hurt. Bishop Bacon, with his persistent spirit, ordered the steeple rebuilt. It was completed within two months. The new steeple measured 203’ and 4”. According to the Portland Press Herald, that makes it the tallest structure in the city. To the present, this cathedral is still the building that catches the eye as one approaches the city.
The Gospel today is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10). It brings us to the heart of our celebration. It reminds us of why this church is important to us.
Zacchaeus is the rich, but unhappy, man Jesus encounters on His journey to Jerusalem, the journey which will bring Him to the cross and Calvary. This Gospel story is a favorite of many people. It is a story of Jesus’ compassion and mercy. Zacchaeus was short in stature; he had to climb into the tree to see Jesus coming. But, more importantly, Zacchaeus was a man with a checkered past. He was rich on what he had stolen from others as a tax collector. And yet, he invites Jesus to his house. And Jesus accepts the invitation.
What happens when Jesus enters the house? It becomes the “house of God” for Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus recognized and accepted Zacchaeus, even though he was not a perfect man. How many of us cannot help but see in this story of Zacchaeus the very heart of the Gospel? Jesus, in His mercy and compassion, comes to be with us because of His great love for each of us. We know we are not perfect, but we strive to live as Jesus asks of us because we have experienced His love and compassion. The story of Zacchaeus is one of Jesus wanting to be with us and asking us to invite Him not only into our homes but into our hearts. Today, we are reminded as we hear this story that just as Jesus made Zacchaeus’ house a “house of God,” so too does He make this house a sacred place. He is with us in this house. He is with us in this gathering for the Eucharist. He is with us in His word proclaimed and in the Sacrament of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. He makes this beautiful place a holy place where we, each of us, can know the love and mercy of God.
Remember that steeple that is at the top of the cathedral? It reaches up into the sky and marks the cathedral as a thing of beauty. But it is also a symbol of the purpose of the Church, which is to guide our eyes and our spirits, our thoughts and our prayers, to God. But, have you noticed that Patrick Keely, the architect was not satisfied with just one steeple? He has three.
In my walks along Portland’s Back Cove in the morning, as I look across at the cathedral, I often reflect on those steeples. They remind us of something very important. Just as the repentant Zacchaeus found his place in the life of Jesus, so too does Jesus call each of us to our place. Like the steeples, we are not all called to be the same. Zacchaeus may have been the shortest steeple, the one farthest away from the way of life that Jesus was preaching. Before he encountered Jesus, he was, after all, a thief. But Jesus sees his heart and knows his desire to change. We believe that Jesus’ forgiveness, His mercy, changes Zacchaeus’ life.
This cathedral, like any church, is the place where we meet Jesus. We may not be that tallest of steeples that reaches up to a commanding place in the sky. But, when we enter here, we should remind ourselves that we enter the “house of God.” God is here. We find him just as did Zacchaeus. We find him in Jesus. He is here to remind us that He walks with us on the journey of life helping us to be His followers. And He sends us from here to be the bearers of His good news, of His love and mercy.
The beauty of the cathedral is made more magnificent in the way those who meet Jesus here in liturgy and prayer are given the grace to do the work of the Gospel. From here, go forth people who serve: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forming minds to know God, walking with people on their journey of faith, comforting those who are dying and those who mourn the loss of loved ones. These are the projects of the people who find here a holy place, a “house of God,” a place where God in Jesus has chosen to dwell. As we celebrate this anniversary, we pray that as this cathedral stands on the hill pointing all who see it to God, it might also be the place from which those who worship here go forth to become a living Gospel, bringing the love and mercy Jesus lived into Portland and Maine.
We pray that Mary, Mother of God, invoked here under her title of the Immaculate Conception. might intercede for us and help us to be the “house of God,” the living Church.