“All Beautiful the March of Days”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, December 30, 2018
Rev. Paul E. Ellis Jackson
14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. — Genesis 1:14-15 NRSV
“Never underestimate the importance of an ordinary day.” –Jim Rhatigan
The last sermon of 2018 is upon us. The anticipation and hope of the Advent season are giving way to our more mundane thoughts of “After Christmas and the coming New Year”—and even though we’re actually in the midst of Christmastide (the religious season that lasts from December 25th through January 5th—ending with the Feast of the Epiphany—the arrival of the Magi) this Sunday always feels rather plain and ordinary to me. But as I’ve been told by a very wise man: “Never underestimate the importance of an ordinary day.” Speaking of wise men, it just so happens that January 6th is on a Sunday in 2019, next Sunday to be exact, and I know Robin has some special plans for next Sunday’s service centering on the Magi. So with new anticipation laid before you now for next Sunday with the arrival of kings and a New Year– and with the removal of wrapping paper and ribbons and the cessation of Christmas music in the public square last week—between these two markers lies today. An ordinary Sunday, an ordinary day, as Jim Rhatigan might remind us. But in reality, a very extra-ordinary Sunday. Because Sunday, December 30, 2018 will never happen again. This day is as insubstantial as mist. And as permanent as an Ebenezer, a giant stone marker that commemorates a great battle—while we’re in the midst of it. This day, though, will soon fade into our memories like so many days before it…
So what can we do to make this Sunday special—memorable? Will this be the Sunday that Paul captures everything that is perfect and good in a sermon and touches every heart and inspires you to greater kindness? I always hope that, but it remains to be seen. Will this be the Sunday that we remember for a very funny Children’s sermon moment? With our kids that could be any given Sunday, no? Has this been the Sunday where a music moment created space for your soul to come closer to touching the Divine presence? Is this the day you start to hear God’s small quiet voice whisper to you—“there is a better way”? Or will this be a Sunday, like so many others, that simply melts into our memories of all those other Sundays—that warm pot of honey—sticky memories of Sundays past—like flies stuck in amber from the Mesozoic era—Sundays that remain forever with us as they are comforting, warm and familiar. Like this room is—like these friends are. Familiar, warm—full of great comfort to us. Jim Rhatigan would have us remember the incredible power of a Sunday like today—the inestimable power of an ordinary day. Because ordinary days actually become your life.
How fitting then that we just sang the lovely hymn, All Beautiful the March of Days, by Mrs. Frances Whitmarsh Wile. A rather ordinary woman who has touched the world in extraordinary ways. Her evocative words give us images such as a “hand that shaped the rose” and “Love deepens round the hearth”. Lovely words to help us mark the passage of time in poetic and meaningful ways. There’s not much known about Frances Wile other than she was born in Bristol Centre, New York on December 2, 1878 and she left this earth in Rochester, New York on July 31, 1939. But in between those two markers of time, she left use some useful words put together in meaningful phrases that give us another way to comprehend the passage of time. “All beautiful the march of days, as seasons come and go; the hand that shaped the rose hath wrought the crystal of the snow…” The hymn and its lyrics are often sung at this time of year because of its wintry imagery and its end-of-a-season ethos. She goes on to tell us this same hand, the hand of a creating God, “Hath sent the hoary frost of heav’n, the flowing waters sealed, and laid a silent loveliness on hill and wood and field.” Isn’t that lovely.
Frances married A.J. Wile in 1901 and she wrote the words of “All Beautiful the March of Days” in 1907. The tune she chose to set her lyrics to is a traditional English melody called Forest Green and that is the version we sang just a few moments ago. The harmonies you heard were written by the famous composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams and there are other musical settings of her lyrics, but none that captures the grand construction of her words and then juxtaposes that so nicely with the aching solitude of her images. She wrote these words while she was a member of the Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York and her minister at that time was the Rev. William Channing Gannett. Rev. Gannett wrote numerous hymns in his time, but none are particularly famous now and his words didn’t have quite the lasting impact as his parishioner’s. He did, however, like Frances Wile’s hymn enough that he had it included in a hymnal that he was overseeing the formation of and it is probably through this act of generosity that we still sing “All Beautiful the March of Days” to this day. Frances Wile spent the remainder of her days in Rochester and founded the Women’s City Club, which flourished in Rochester under her leadership. At its peak, in 1925, this social and political organization had over 2,000 members and played a vital role in the city’s campaigns for a city manager charter, a central library, smoke abatement, a drive for pasteurized milk, and many other civic reforms. Its successive clubhouses also provided convenient headquarters for many women’s groups and helped to urbanize the women of Rochester. It seems that Frances Whitmarsh Wile would have felt right at home here at University Congregational Church.
When the ancient Hebrew people tried to comprehend this idea of time they attributed it as just one more creation of Adonai. The ancient book of Genesis tells us that 14 …God said, “Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. – Signs to mark sacred times, and days and years. We need markers, I believe, that function like book marks—ways to remember certain days. It helps us make sense of our lives, I think. What I have found is that by basing my week upon a rhythm of celebration, prayer and reflection using Sundays as my anchor, I can frame my week in a more meaningful manner. I have found that by joining the cycle of the church’s calendar–its celebrations and solemnities–its rituals and rites–its music and words, I actually am able to make my days mean more than I feel they otherwise might.
Now, I confess that there are as many ways to know the divine as there are human minds capable of embracing the concept of a “God”. I believe that those who choose to follow the teaching of the Buddha have found a path to the divine that works for them and their world. I have watched devout Muslims practice their peaceful faith in manners that make meaning for them and their world. And the same is true for any who choose a faith path to follow in this world–a religion to help them make meaning for their life. There are religious celebrations for almost every day of the year—it just depends upon your faith system whether or not you celebrate them. It gives our lives purpose and meaning and it has holy days and rituals that help us mark the time.
For me–the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth have proven to be the best way to know the divine. And so I join with like-minded people in a beautiful building and enjoy their music and company and worship—and calendar. I then apply these teachings to my life in a manner that helps me make meaning out of a more and more complex world. I find comfort in the tradition, the ritual, and the rhythm of Christian belief. But I will also take from the other faith systems any teaching that helps make me a more peaceful, loving man. Including their holy days and their festival days and, most importantly, their feast days!
The ancient Egyptians had a lovely story that helped them understand the idea of time and time’s passage. Mehetra was a young priestess in an ancient Egyptian temple. She had trained for years to become a priestess, and took her position very seriously. Mehetra’s main responsibility was to help another priestess in everyday matters. She also participated in the regular temple festivals. In festivals, Mehetra would follow the priestess, chanting and shaking her sistrum, and ancient Egyptian musical instrument, similar to a tambourine. When Mehetra was not busy, she liked to watch other people go about their duties in the temple. There was one priest in particular who Mehetra liked to follow. His name was Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet). Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) was the ‘Wenuty’ (‘hour-watcher’) priest. He was in charge of making sure that temple rituals were performed on time during the day, night and throughout the year. During the day, Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) watched the sun. He worked out what time of day it was by looking at the sun’s position in the sky. Ordinary people worked out the time of day in the same way, but they had less experience and training than Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet). At night, Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) carefully watched the water clock. As the evening fell, the clock was filled with water. During the night, the water dripped out a hole in the bottom. Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) checked the water level during the night to work out when to perform nightly rituals.
One day, Mehetra met Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) walking across the courtyard of the temple. When Mehetra greeted Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet), he looked startled. ‘The world is in chaos’, he said. ‘The stars and the earth are moving against each other. Sopdet, (the ancient Egyptian name for Sirius, the Dog Star—the brightest star) has risen, but it is not yet the first month of the flood season.’
Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) shook his head. He pointed to the wall where Mehetra saw a list carved into the wall in hieroglyphs. ‘This calendar keeps track of all the days throughout the year. It tells me that it is not yet time for the New Year festival. But the star Sopdet has risen, and the flood is coming. I must consult the high priest’ ‘Follow me!’ he said to Mehetra. So Mehetra and Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) raced through the rooms of the temple. He stopped in front of a carved wall and pointed to a list of inscriptions. ‘This problem was first noticed when they were alive,’ he pointed to a line of carved pictures. ‘That was many years ago, and the problem is only getting worse.’
Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) shook his head again. Then, he turned to Mehetra and said, ‘Go now, child. I must be alone to think…’ With that, Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) turned and walked away. Mehetra studied the wall in front of her. Each inscription contained the name of a pharaoh. Did this problem with the calendar really mean that the world was falling into chaos?
Then, Mehetra’s eye fell upon a clear carving of a ‘shen’ sign. The shen stood for eternity. It had been carved into the wall to show that Egypt would continue forever. Mehetra knew that the priests would work out the problem so that the heavens and the calendar on the temple wall were in harmony. Mehetra turned away from the wall and walked out into the temple courtyard. The sun was shining down brightly. As Mehetra began to do her duties, she wondered if Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) would know what was happening the next time she saw him. Mehetra was at peace, because her world once again made sense. The Egyptian gods would make sure that the pharaohs and the nation of Egypt would continue forever and that was enough for her.
We now know much more about the movement of the planets and stars and that what Mehetra and Amenemopet (Ah-men-em-oh-pet) had experienced was what we know as leap year. That weird situation that occurs because the orbit of our planet is 365.256 days, to be exact. This creates a mathematical conundrum which the ancient Egyptians eventually figured out. Ancient people with profound embedded religious beliefs had encountered a natural phenomenon that did not fit in their understanding of the world. That never happens today, does it? Fortunately for Mehetra, her faith was strong enough that she calmed her anxiety. But it is interesting to note that her faith was not just in her divine belief, but also in her belief that the humans responsible for interpreting the world would figure it out. I love this poetic story—a metaphor for marking the season and the days and the years.
Fast forward back to our story of the lyric writer of the hymn “All Beautiful the March of Days” and we get another poetic way to look at the passage of time. As I was researching the life of Frances Whitmarsh Wile for this sermon, I came across another one of her other surviving writings: A beautiful little poem called, appropriately, Sunday, and it spoke to me with its simplicity and stark beauty.
Sunday by Frances Whitmarsh Wile (1878-1939)
My holy day, my calm delight;
My meadow in the fields of life;
My silence, in earth’s noisy strife,
Where God is clearest to my sight.
My island, in the rushing stream,
Where birds may sing and lilies blow;
My hill-top, where the mornings glow,
While still in night the valleys dream.
My strength, to face the coming week;
My rest, to count the battles fought;
My quiet, where the jarring thought
Of other days grows still and meek.
My day of love; my day of prayer;
My day of pure and perfect peace;
My day where all the tumults cease,
And souls rise to serener air.
Whether we were alive on the planet in ancient Egypt trying to understand why the river did not flood on time or alive on the planet here in the last days of 2018…we all search for ways to make meaning in our lives. We all search for that “strength to face the coming week, that rest to count the battles fought, that quiet where the jarring thought of other days grows still and meek.” This, then, is the mark of a life well-lived, I believe: One who tries to make meaning of the world for themselves and then helps others make meaning as well. Mehetra and her priest lived a life such as this and so did the author of the words of our hymn.
Frances Whitmarsh Wile was an ordinary woman who went about her ordinary life in an ordinary fashion. But she left us a simple legacy in her words that we sing every year. Hopefully, now, when you sing her song, you might reflect kindly on the memory of this sermon, and you might remember that there are no ordinary days, they are all extraordinary, because you are alive to live them. May you come more fully alive and awake in the coming year and grasp on to these days—these moments—these ineffable connections in time—that are all too fleeting and all too easy to forget. May you remember this ordinary Sunday as one in which you did and experienced extraordinary things. Amen.
As we bring 2018 to a close here in these next few, fleeting hours, please rise and let’s say goodbye to the old year in our traditional fashion—let’s sing of Auld Lang Syne.