Only the oaks remain.
Upright and dark their vertical survival is all that prevented a complete washing clean:
Banda Aceh or Phuket.
I am not kidding.
The first things you see are the oaks. From wide immovable trunks, thick encompassing arms reach broadly over the swept lots, slabs and pieces of foundation that is Beach Boulevard in Long Beach. Since last fall you see that leaves (non-deciduous) have filled the smaller branches, even faint traces of the once ubiquitous Spanish Moss have begun to appear.
You are about a dozen feet above sea level on the former site of this small Episcopal Church. It is Sunday morning, August 27th, the first mass to be celebrated here since the last one was benediction-ed, with some haste in the face of evacuation, one year ago.
You sit under a small tent where once the outdoor chapel stood. You look about. Actually, you notice green everywhere, tangled and waist-high, covering completely the footprint of a sanctuary, farther over an office and the Sunday school. Overgrowth might be the technical term. Weeds, scrub, high grasses and delinquent shrubs are what they are, really. You are saddened, as if ruination were not enough, but this: vanquished by weeds seems the final insult.
You should’ve known, seen the irony. This is grim evidence of new life. The Celtic Christians would tell you (you later are told) that all growth is evidence of life renewed and this is, after all, St. Patrick’s Church.
* * * * * * * * *
The first thing you hear is the quiet. You hear that a lot in our communities. You hear the hollow stillness of what is no more and the aimless rustling of that which will never be the same again. Then there is some hammering too, the din of repair and restoration, even on a Sunday morning: perhaps especially so.
Then something changes. Reality, the helplessness of past and present, is incontrovertibly altered. God intervenes. The Greco-Romans called it deus ex machina — the appearance of a god to redeem and restore the tragedy of our woeful drama. The Christian church calls it a sacrament. No matter how many they choose to number, sacraments are symbols and enactments of the greatest intervention of all: the one that began against the bare wood of a manger and is called the incarnation.
If we can experience Jesus in these moments, then the Jesus we experience is the same resurrected Jesus that his early followers encountered. The body is physical and is touched. Yes, it is preternatural but it is also real. This body still bears its scars, the wound in the side and the imprint of nails. The Jesus encountered has suffered and the body we meet at this table is meant to be handled.
This is very good news on the slabs of Long Beach.
* * * * * * * * *
The wood that began the incarnation has mostly disappeared, save the occasional crèche in December. The wood that was its climax still stands, in your lives and mine, amidst every act of drama and loss that is shaking this world. It is present on this day. It is there in the endless quagmires, that broad swath of death and war that arcs across continents a half a globe away: the disasters of our own making. Add to that, the muck that was once New Orleans.
Here in the sands and bayous of coastal Mississippi it still stands, towering o’er the wrecks of time.
The mass concludes with an a cappella singing of the Irish Blessing, a long-standing tradition for special services.
May the road rise with you.
May the wind be always at your back.
It is too familiar. It catches you by surprise undermining the final ramparts of feeling that defend the heart.
May the sun shine warm upon your face.
It is the fourth line that is the problem and suddenly everyone knows it:
May the rain fall soft upon your fields.
I think I managed a word or two. Around me, I only heard air coming out in metered time and that wet whistling sound when suddenly puffed cheeks exhale.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the hollow of His hand.
Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.
- Anglican Collect (BCP)