March 21: Holy Emptiness
Written by the Right Reverend Henry N. Parsley, Jr.,
Visiting Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina
Last Sunday, under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, Becky and I worshipped virtually in an empty cathedral. It was a surprising and moving experience.
Aside from the clergy, organist, and four singers the Washington National Cathedral was entirely empty. The service was closed to congregants, and live streamed, in order to help stem the spread of the virus. The words and music were surrounded by a vast emptiness, which was at once unsettling and profound.
It is not easy for Episcopalians to close our churches for Sunday worship. We cherish our weekly gathering together to give thanks, to be sacramentally and homiletically nourished, to greet one another. But last week it was the very emptiness of the cathedral that seemed eloquently to proclaim the love and care of God for the world. Rather than risk bringing people together in this challenging moment, the church closed its doors. In a strange way this was in itself a sermon. A profound act of self-emptying.
It is the belief of Christian people that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, emptied himself by becoming one of us and giving up his life on the cross. God showed the full extent of the divine love for the world in this absolute self-giving. Theologians call this kenosis, the generous, sacrificial pouring out of God’s own life for us. Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness…and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross,” Paul wrote. W.H. Vanstone beautifully captured this once in a poem:
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore he who shows us God
Helpless hangs upon the tree;
And the nails and crown of thorns
Tell of what God’s love must be.
The cross stands in the midst of our churches to remind us of this great truth. But last Sunday, ironically, it was the intentionally empty cathedral that proclaimed it, as the church hollowed itself for a moment in the interest of the well-being of others. When the camera played over the quiet spaces and bright windows surrounding a thousand empty seats there was a palpable feeling of the divine presence pouring selfless grace and hope into the world. The empty cathedral was actually full of love.
In these anxious days this is a dose of soul medicine. As we react to the threat of the virus, it is easy for us to think anxiously of ourselves and our safety. Already the media is filled with stories of people hoarding supplies, selling stock to protect investments, fiercely guarding their interests. Certainly self care is important and in its proper place contributes to the commonweal. But a time like this calls us to more. It urges us to think beyond ourselves and act for others, not doing certain things for the greater good.
May the holy emptiness of the cathedral remind us of our high calling as human beings, the high calling of sacrifice for one another. We will get though this ordeal as we work together, doing and not doing as needed to limit the virus’ spread. There may be hard days ahead. We will be afraid at times. Let us pray without ceasing that our fear does not conquer our love. When it is over may we be able to hold our heads high, because we will have done our best, in a difficult time, to empty ourselves for each other and the common good. That is what love does.
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During the uncertain times created by the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, leadership of the diocese will send out regular meditations on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays for the next while as we all adjust to a new chapter of living and being the Church.