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Yale Divinity School Commencement Worship Service

May 24, 2009

Jaime Lara, Chair of the Program on Religion and the Arts, and Lecturer in Christian Art and Architecture

Ezekiel 40:1-4; 48:30-35
Revelation 21: 1-4, 9-14, 21-26
Matthew 17:1-8

Editor’s note: Written version of comments may vary slightly from actual delivery.

Searching for a New H(e)aven


There are very few written records.  But we do know that it was a clear day in late April, and so they had a good view of them from the deck of the ship.  As the Reverend John Davenport and his band looked out on the 360-degree panorama of the natural harbor, they could spot the two massive red outcroppings of volcanic stone that we today call East Rock and West Rock; and there to the south of the sacred mountains, on a flat plain, a corn field belonging to the Quinnipiac tribe that would be the future site of the city.  It was to be a haven, a harbor, and a home, a New Zion laid out just to the west of another Jordan River.  There, on the Plain of the Quinnipeac, they were to acknowledge the signs that the Almighty had set before them and establish, as Davenport says, “the perfect pattern of God’s eternal design.” 

By late May of that year, 1638, they finished building primitive shelters for themselves, and began to mark out the boundaries of the utopian town.  It was the brainchild of Davenport and his life-long friend, Theophilus Eaton, the businessman and C.E.O. of the adventure.  Both knew their Bible, and both saw themselves in the role of a new Moses and Aaron leading the Puritan tribes into the dangerous wilderness of New World Canaanites, all the while receiving the revelation of Divine Providence on top of a fiery mountain, or at least on a red-stone outcropping of rock like the surrounding hills.  

To get a better view of their Promised Land and to plan its physical layout, Davenport and Eaton must have left the cornfields downtown and taken the old Indian trail that led up through the woods to this hill --- in the words of the Geneva Bible that Davenport always carried with him --- “to better get the Prospect of the land.”  If it were not for these buildings on the south side of the quad, we too would have a good prospect of the sacred plain below. 

Perhaps the founding fathers wanted an even better view to scout out the Promised Land.  Well then, led by some imagined angel, they would have continued on the old Indian trail even higher, up and around to the pinnacle of East Rock (directly behind me), and from that panorama they could have surveyed the plain below and seem in their minds’ eye the outline of a city.  Up there, Davenport--who was given to spontaneous prayer--may have even uttered the words that Peter spoke upon the mountain: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  Maybe he felt like Elijah at the mouth of the mountain-cave listening to the murmur of a soft breeze, or perhaps he remembered that from a similar rock in Galilee Jesus took leave of his disciples at the Ascension and sent them forth.

The town that Davenport and Eaton envisioned would be a perfect square of nine smaller squares, a heaven-on-earth as described in Ezekiel’s prophecy and as interpreted by a sixteenth-century professor of religion and the arts (a Spanish Jesuit no less!) whose published work Davenport had consulted during his Divinity School days at Oxford.   If you could see it from above, the urban plan of New Heaven is deliberately skewed on an angle from the harbor so that all its north-south streets would eternally face East Rock, while all its cross streets would always face West Rock, as the prophet had foreseen.  Funny how a little perspective can allow one to see a larger picture and a much grander plan!  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  One wants to linger with the view on the mountain, be it Mount Tabor or East Rock or even Prospect Hill.  Saint Peter, like a good scout leader, even wanted to camp out and hang around for a while; but the Lord had other ideas.  There comes a time to descend from the holy hill to the plain, into the city, into other cities, into other labors, routines and adventures

For the spiritual mountain-climbers, John Davenport and Theophilus Eaton, the Scriptures were being fulfilled in their sight.  And so below them, there on the Plain of the Quinnipeac, the four-square city was constructed, 2500 yards on a side.  It’s center square, now called the Green, was left open as the city’s marketplace, cemetery, and religious center with a wooden Tent of Meeting erected at its heart.  As coincidence would have it, a creek connected the Green to the harbor; it flowed from the right side of the temple, just as Ezekiel had predicted.  In the following century, a Collegiate School for training in  “religion and civil government” was established down there.  Its buildings were located on the west side of the temple area and generously endowed with shady money by someone called Eli Yale.

But in spite of its heavenly design and utopian purpose, the colony was a less than perfect heaven-on-earth.  It lived up to its reputation for religious zealotry.  Davenport and his fellow Puritans insisted on a society so exclusive and pure that it bound every inhabitant to governance by literal Mosaic law.  The term "theocracy" probably applied nowhere more aptly than in New Haven: only church members in good standing could vote, own land, and hold office.  Outsiders were turned away at the colony's borders, the Quakers violently. With hostile Dutch nearby in New Amsterdam, and Baptists and Quakers seeking entry, the colony was always a tense place. Even at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews and Catholics were not permitted to set foot on the New Haven Green; Native American and African slaves had to be accompanied by their masters some of whom were professors of divinity.   The utopian colony may have been planned on Ezekiel’s new city, but it was not yet Saint John’s Heavenly Jerusalem.  It was more like Saint Augustine’s City of God, which, although it is being built up in this life, is always half-way there, always contaminated by the City of Man with all its imperfections, politics, and jealousies.  But this reality is also part of the wider panorama.

So where do we find ourselves in this landscape?  “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”  I hope and I pray that it has been good for you to be here these two or three years; but the time has come to move on; it is the moment to come down from the mountain and commence the new.  It would certainly be a cliché for me to say that you are facing new challenges.  Every graduating class since the first in 1703 has heard that well-worn phrase about the “exciting challenges that lie before you.”  But this graduating class seems to be facing more challenges and trails than usual. As President Barak Obamba said last Sunday at the commencement ceremony of another university:
Your class has come of age at a moment of great consequence for our nation and the world - a rare inflection point in history where the size and scope of the challenges before us require that we rebuild our world to renew its promise.  Yours is the generation that must find a path back to prosperity and decide how we respond to a global economy that left millions behind even before this crisis hit - an economy where greed and short-term thinking were too often rewarded at the expense of fairness, and diligence, and an honest day's work.  

The president then went on to speak about the virtue and audacity of hope during these difficult days.

At Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music you have received an excellent education and have done outstanding work, and you deserve to be congratulated.  You found a welcome harbor here at Yale.  Some of you sail on to advanced study or internships elsewhere, while others face the uncertainty of a closed job market, or the prospect of paying back student loans with no guarantee that employment awaits.  For those of you who thought that the ordained ministry might be a reliable haven or a bit of heaven-on-earth, you have had to come down that mountain.  Last week The New York Times reported that some ecclesial communities are ordaining more ministers that they can ever employ in parishes and congregations, while senior ministers are delaying retirement and so offsetting the need for replacements. You’ll have to be very creative in your interpretation of the word “ministry” if you ever hope to be numbered among the ranks of America’s lowest-paid professionals, the clergy.  And worst of all, not even the name “Yale” on your diploma or your résumé will be enough to save you.  The biblical scholars here present will know that the word “Yale” Y-A-L-E begins with the same letter as the Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew name for God, Y-H-W-H, but that’s where the similarity ends.  Ivy league idolatry is of no use here.

But why did you come to the holy hill in the first place?  Did you really think that you would “master divinity”?  There is no mastering of Divinity!  At best, by God’s grace and by our humble submission, Divinity masters us.  Then why did you come to the mountain of transformation if not for a bird’s-eye view on the really real; a 360-degree prospect on city, state, church, and human nature, and that is reality!  Ezekiel said it in the sixth century BCE: “Watch, mortal! Listen carefully, pay close attention to everything, because this is why you were brought here.”

And do you really believe that you came to Yale Divinity School by chance?  To the eyes of faith, you and I were guided here by Divine Providence for a purpose. When Peter, James and John were on the mountain they heard the voice that said: “This is my Beloved, listen to him.”  You too have listened and come this far by faith.  Behind all the Divinity School course work, behind the biblical exegesis, the historical-theological analysis, the ethical questions, the ministerial praxis, and (best of all!) behind the religion and arts eye-openers, is the whispering sound that Elijah heard on the holy mountain, the gentle breeze that invites one to something much more profound: to BE transfigured into hope.

For those of us who stand in the Christian tradition, the transfiguration is not only a revelation of Christ's pizzazz -- as we say on Broadway -- but also a preparation for living in the image of Christ.  This involves both “going up” and “coming down the mountain.”  In that elevated school of divinity, the disciples, caught up in the horizon of eternity, are immediately brought back to daily reality where they see “Jesus only,” and are instructed to return to the valley, to share with him the construction work of God's plan.  You, like them, are invited not only to gaze on that prospect from afar, but to become part of the plan by responding to the call to holiness; not a Puritanical holiness, mind you, but a real holiness in the flesh for real women and men, in a real world, with real problems.  The call to be transfigured into Jesus the Christ, is the call to become his living icon, to start to look like Jesus -- and I am not speaking here of long hair and beards. 

You were guided to the sacred mountain because you are part of a much larger plan and, as frightening as the economic insecurities and lack of job prospects may be, the Transfigured One says now “move on in hope, there’s work to be done elsewhere.

Hope is what Dr. Martin Luther King saw forty-one years ago.  While preaching in Memphis, Tennessee in different but equally difficult times, he said:  “I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop . . . I just want to do God's will. He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over.”

Dr. King looked over in hope, which, I remind you, is not pie-eyed optimism, but rather is one of three theological virtues.  Hope is the power by which we desire the reign of God, placing our trust in Christ's promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the grace of Holy Spirit.  The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness that God has placed in the heart of every person; it keeps us from discouragement; it sustains us during times of abandonment; it preserves us from self-centeredness, and it leads to the joy that flows from the works of love.
The task of the hopeful, your task, is the task of the Transfigured: To have both the wider perspective from the mountain, and at the same time the courage, even in hard times, to roll up your sleeves and put on the hard hat to build the four-square city, the haven where justice, peace, inclusively, tolerance, and charity reign.  Mountain climbers and hard hats have gone before you to offer hope.  Now it is your turn to use your knowledge, wisdom and vision elsewhere, so that others may know that the name of the city is indeed “The-Lord-Is-Here!”

Drawing of New Haven

“New Jerusalem,” digitized from Fontaine, Nicholas.  L’histoire du Vieux et du Nouveau Testament.  Paris, 1670.

The work in question is In Ezekielem explanationes et apparatus urbis ac templi Hiersolymitani, commentariis et imaginibus illustratus, by Juan Bautista Villalpando, SJ. Rome, 1596-1602.  While researching at Oxford University, I found several copies of the work extant from the early seventeenth century, one of them in Magdalen College where John and Christopher Davenport studied c. 1614.

Eli, or Elihu, Yale became governor of the British colony of Madras, India, where he made his fortune in slavery and black market goods.

Like the professor of divinity, Jonathan Edwards.  See Kenneth Minkema, “Jonathan Edwards’s Defense of Slavery,” Massachusetts Historical Review (2002) vol. 4.

Commencement address at the University of Notre Dame, May 17, 2009.


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