GUESTVIEW: Amazing Grace — a rabbi’s view of the inaugural prayer service
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.
On Wednesday, I went to church. It seemed right that on the morning after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration as the 44th President of the United States I should pray for his and our success in the years ahead. We are a nation in crisis, depleted in so many ways by the last eight years. On the Tuesday of the inauguration, I stood with a million other Americans on the Mall in Washington, watching and cheering the transfer of power. The air was frigid, but filled with hope. We stood just behind the Capitol reflecting pool – far from the rostrum, but embedded in the great, diverse mass of people who make up America. Next to us were folks from Augusta, Georgia, who drawled their discomfort when George Bush was booed. On our other side were Washingtonians – African-Americans who proudly declared that on this day we were not black or white, but all of us were silver (the color of our tickets to the event).
(Photo: National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)
Truth be told, the inaugural was better viewed in front of a television. But for the experience of being an American on this auspicious day, the Mall was the best place in the whole world. There is something extraordinary about standing among a million others, staring up at the jumbotron, striving to catch the words our new president was speaking. Sharing our food, our stories, ducking down so someone behind us could snap a photo, making sure that kids were in the sight-lines of their parents, breathing free; we huddled, massed against the cold, embodying the passions that Emma Lazarus’ poem emblazons on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
On Wednesday morning, waking before the dawn, again in bitter cold, we headed to church to pray for our republic. We were invited to the magnificent Washington National Cathedral for the interfaith National Prayer Service, a long tradition, since the days of President George Washington. There among the crowd I spotted many familiar Jewish faces (not a long tradition). There were Muslims and Hindus, and, of course, an abundance of Christian clergy.
I had the privilege of shaking hands with Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. (the National Cathedral is Episcopal). I greeted Rev. Joseph Lowery, who had delivered the stirring closing benediction at the inaugural. The 3,000 proud Americans in the congregation included the incoming cabinet, as well as senators and members of Congress among the pews. From my seat I watched former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton work the room. I saw Vice-President and Dr. Biden enter the cathedral, mere feet from where I was seated. They were immediately followed by President and Mrs. Obama. Tall, even regal, they embodied the very grace that we all prayed God may grant them.
(Photo: Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Jill Biden, 21 Jan 2009/Larry Downing)
The program included music on the carillon, the organ, the brass ensemble of the Marine Band, and a children’s gospel choir. The kids sang “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” and encouraged us to sing along for the final verse. Dr. Wintley Phipps sang “Amazing Grace” in his deep bass voice, profoundly moving the congregation. And Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, President of the Disciples of Christ Church, preached an excellent sermon, charging President Obama to continue his moral leadership. We all heartily assented, “Amen.”
The service ended with the hymn, “For the healing of the nations,” another cause to say “Amen.” But for me, the most symbolic moment of the National Prayer Service, and perhaps even the entire inaugural, came when the cathedral choir sang their hymn, “America the Beautiful.” The first verse, “O beautiful for spacious skies,” was sung solely by the sopranos, who sounded like the celestial choir. The entire chorus sang verse two, “O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife/ who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!” We all joined in, clergy, cabinet, Bidens, and Obamas, for the third and final verse, “O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years/ thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!” Except by then, my own tears were streaming down my cheeks.
“America, America, God shed his grace on thee.”