New Year’s Day at Washington National Cathedral

Most of you recognize Washington D.C. by its neoclassical buildings like the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court, and the ancient Greek temple-style memorials of Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

But off in the distance, away from the National Mall and all the government buildings and memorials, on the heights of Mount Saint Alban, is probably my favorite building in all of Washington D.C.: The Washington National Cathedral.

Washington National Cathedral (Photo by J.D. Wills)

The Washington National Cathedral is among the largest of its kind in the world. The massive stone structure sits at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in Northwest Washington, D.C.

For me it’s always been that initial right turn from Mass Avenue onto Wisconsin that gets me. The gothic stone facade of this colossus immediately awes you. Believe me they don’t make them like this anymore.

The full and complete construction of the Cathedral took 83 years. President Theodore Roosevelt laid the corner stone in 1907 and the final finial was placed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

The view as you walk into the main sanctuary is magnificent to say the least. Your eyes are drawn up toward the heavens.

Main sanctuary or “nave” (Photo by J.D. Wills)

The above picture of the nave is only a narrow part of the main sanctuary area. At the far end of this photo is the entrance to the choir stalls and the alter, another 3rd or more of the building.

My family and I visited the Cathedral yesterday for the New Year’s Day communion service and to hear the full peal of the Cathedral’s massive bells (a small sample below).

I’ve been visiting the Cathedral off and on over the almost 30 years I’ve been living in the D.C. area. I’ve attended services and communion a number of times, but we’ve always sat in the nave during those visits. But yesterday we had the rare privilege of sitting in the choir stalls. These wooden benches are located just prior to the main alter. In my experience, this area is typically not open to visitors.

My view from the Choir Stalls (Photo by J.D. Wills)

It was interesting that only a small group of people showed up for the New Year’s Day service. There weren’t many of us, maybe 150 people at best. We (my family and friends) were all feeling a little special that the cathedral staff had decided to have the service in choir/alter area. As we quietly made our way in and sat on the choir benches, our eyes were drawn up to the religious art, architecture, and stained glass, and our mood was made even more solemn by the majestic sound of the cathedral organ playing low.

The message given at the service was about the power of words and their meaning and the importance each of us has in choosing our words wisely. From the use and meaning of our words we reveal the state of our soul.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s hard not to be moved by a group of people reading aloud together the beautifully simple words of the Common Book of Prayer. The beauty and meaning of those words draws you out of yourself and makes you feel connected, if only momentarily, to something greater than our own little ego. It’s in this sacred space, these moments of grace, that we feel our capacity for greater love, charity, and forgiveness.

I cannot say for sure, but this may have been my last visit to the Cathedral since there is a good chance we’ll be moving this year. If that turns out to be true, then I was fortunate and saved the best for last.

After the service we all went outside to hear the bells.

Sound of Full Peal (Bells) at Washington National Cathedral (Video by J.D. Wills, 01/01/2020)

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