Among the ancient Greek philosophers, Plato, the devoted student of Socrates, held that there were three pre-eminent values that could lead human beings to an encounter with the Ultimate Reality. We believe that the God who is the object of worship in the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions is that reality who is the sole fountainhead those Platonic values of Truth, Beauty and Goodness — the giver (as the Epistle of James puts it) of “every good and every perfect gift.”
These three great principles of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, can also be viewed as guiding values in the history of this parish church over the centuries of its life. When the Church of the Ascension was founded in 1827 by a band of ardent English Evangelicals, they organized their mission beneath the banner of Truth. Appalled as they were by the distortions and accretions of the “High Church” Anglicanism of their day, these tough-minded and earnest men formed a community that would be based on right thinking, clear doctrine, and the uncompromising proclamation of the Gospel as they understood it. They built this place to house their serious enterprise with a deliberate and studied lack of any ornamentation or decoration that might distract the faithful from the pure contemplation of Truth – the Truth of God in Christ. This building was known as one of the ugliest houses of worship in the City in its day.
Over the decades, as Ascension lived and flourished in its Village neighborhood, its members were gradually gripped by the demands of another of Plato’s central principles, the principle of Goodness. Surrounded by glaring inequities of class and ethnic loyalties during a period of increasing immigration, the people of this parish courageously embraced the struggle to be of real service to the poor and the needy who encompassed their neighborhood of privilege. The church became a vibrant center of social outreach and concrete social service to men seeking employment; to women looking for safe housing for their families; and for children needing to learn the skills that would bring them into productive adulthood. Long before any government agencies existed to provide a safety net for the less fortunate, this Church understood its mission to be about doing Good for the sake of the Lord Jesus.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, another shift occurred. Through a remarkable coincidence of wealth and newly emerging artistic talent, it came into the mind of the leaders and the people of Ascension to embrace the path of Beauty as the next step in their journey inspired by the Spirit of God. An amazing transformation took place, which resulted in what we would call a “total make-over” of this sanctuary. Balconies were removed from the north and side aisles and enlarged stained-glass windows were fabricated by some of the young, emerging masters of that art form. As a young artist, John LaFarge conceived and painted his masterpiece, “The Ascension of Our Lord,” influenced by his love of Japanese landscape painting – and he created the single largest work of religious art on the North American continent in his day. The architectural firm of McKim, Mead and Stanford White coordinated the “beautification” of the chancel with the addition of these sculpted angels by Louis St. Gaudens; an exquisite marble and mosaic reredos by David Maitland Armstrong; and furnishings of expertly carved woodwork and ornamental brass.
Ascension had become a home for Beauty – a shrine to the Beauty of Holiness to the glory and praise of the Creator, and all within one short decade. Without abandoning their quest for theological Truth, or turning away from the demands for social justice and peace that Goodness dictates, the people of Ascension have also walked the path of Beauty for more than a century – a path that has brought us to this day of joy and celebration as we add another amazing masterwork to the artistic treasures housed in this sacred place.
Now, we know that God is interested in the Truth. Our Lord has said so explicitly, many times. “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall set you free.” And we also know that our God is passionately interested in Goodness. From the earliest days, we have been commanded to care for the “widows and the orphans” and to “do justice and walk humbly with our God.” But how do we know that God is interested in Beauty? How do we know that all the efforts and resources we have devoted to glorifying God through art and music actually please God?
I think that the answer to these questions is to be found everywhere. It is so self-evident, that we may tend to overlook it. We believe that God is interested in Beauty and that God loves Beauty and that God is pleased by Beauty, for the simple reason that God has created so much in the world that is beautiful. Whether it is in the realm of nature, where Beauty astonishes us and leaves us breathless with awe and wonder, or whether it is in the heart-stopping gorgeousness of the human form and face – in the innocent freshness of the smallest child or in the care-worn visage of seasoned old age – we humans are able to see Beauty everywhere, all the time.
It may be said that the great miracle of human consciousness took place for the sole purpose of allowing the Cosmos to reflect upon itself through us – through our senses and our minds. And, as conscious beings, when we look and listen and taste and touch this world, what do we perceive? The saints and the mystics know – the artists and the poets and the musicians know – it is the Beauty of holiness. The poet John Keats famously wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all/ Ye know on Earth or ever need to know.” And so now for us in this church, Plato’s ancient trinity of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness have been fully embraced as reliable pathways to God.
On this special day, we have gathered at Ascension to dedicate a new masterpiece of technical skill, of craftsmanship, and of subtle design to the Glory of God. The Manton Memorial Organ, lovingly created and installed here by the finest artists we could find in the whole world, will serve for many generations to come, in a profound and powerful way. This is an instrument of music, able to produce sounds that can transport our senses and our minds to unimagined heights of splendor and to depths of solemnity and heartbreaking tenderness. This organ is like an entire orchestra of instruments – versatile, strong and powerful, amazingly nuanced and gentle – which can perform all the music ever written for the organ and music that is yet to be conceived in the minds of the music-makers of the future. This organ will accompany and lead the people of God as they sing God’s praises Sunday by Sunday, year by year, decade by decade. It will provide accompaniment for infants and children who are baptized in this font, surrounded by adoring families; it will confer new dimensions of beauty and dignity on brides and grooms (and, God willing, same-sex couples) who come to celebrate their love; it will unite us as we sing hymns – that sacred exercise that enables a whole assembly of disparate people to breathe as one; it will comfort us tenderly as we mourn and bid farewell to those we love; it will strengthen us when we feel weak; it will fill us with elation at times of triumph. This great organ is an ecstasy-producing machine in the true sense of those words. Its purpose is ecstasy – to take us out of our narrow selves – to transport us to the heavenly realms – to forge us together into the strong Body of Christ in our time and place.
This day marks a new milestone in the life of the Church of the Ascension. With the deepest gratitude to the Manton Family for this amazing and generous gift, we thank you for honoring your parents and our dear friends in this way. Now, Sir Edwin and Lady Gretchen Manton will always be remembered in this place that they loved so well and where they were so well loved by us. Every time we hear the sounds of this great instrument, we will recall their memory and will pass along to future generations stories of the good times we shared and the wonderful example of humility and generosity they were to us all.
And finally my friends, we give thanks to God, our Creator and Redeemer, who has led us to this glorious day, always guiding and challenging the people of the Church of the Ascension to find new ways to love God and to serve our neighbors in this great City.
How good it is to sing praises to our God!
How pleasant it is to honor him with praise!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.