Those who think they know the Garden State from only the window of their car while traveling along the New Jersey Turnpike are, as my late father used to say, “Turnpike Tourists.” It is easy to make fun of New Jersey while passing the many gasoline refineries on their way through the state to “somewhere else,” ignorant of the beauty that lies beyond the tankers and tarmac and the fact that their machines use those two products! However one result of NJ politicians raising the gas tax (along with all the other confiscatory levies), will be increasing numbers of residents traveling the state’s roadways on their merry way to becoming former residents!
Last weekend, on the Feast of Christ the King, I traveled the other main highway in New Jersey en route to the beautiful hamlet of Cape May, driving the Garden State Parkway until the curiously numbered “Exit 0.” And this Cape of Cornelius Mey is in the top tier of beauty in my home state.
Arriving in town I maneuvered my car into a curbside parking space of a quiet, shaded neighborhood, one that seemed to be guarded by the giant sycamore tree sentinels and blanketed with their large, crisp and recently-shed leaves. After tightening my scarf against the chill autumn air, I began strolling the quaint neighborhoods with my camera at the ready.
Almost immediately that tool went into action, as I began snapping photos of this or that garden feature to consider implementing at my home next spring…
then the accompanying architecture of the Victorian-style and Gingerbread houses…
and the approaching “clop, clop, clop, clop” of the horse and carriage.
I was thoroughly enjoying my stroll around the neighborhoods, partly because of the beautiful Christmas decorations on the houses and small shops as well as the good spirits of the people strolling here and there. Soon, though, I heard the peeling bells of the Catholic church, Our Lady Star of the Sea, announcing to everyone the approaching 6:00pm Mass that I would attend.
This “church on the mall” is a looming edifice constructed in Gothic and Romanesque style of gray granite, stained glass and Carrera marble (taken from the same marble quarry used by Michelangelo), whose bell tower rises 80 feet above the ground.
The purpose of my earlier emphasis on “everyone” is to make clear that the bells were–and always are–an invitation to all, letting them know they are welcome into this particular house. Our Lady’s church welcomes persons of all faith and no faith backgrounds, to experience a community of believers in Jesus Christ. While those who are not Catholic could not participate in the sacramental aspect of the Mass, they could witness the experience of what the Catholic Church refers to as the “Source and Summit” of the faith and the Sacrament to which the other sacraments are oriented:
Holy Eucharist in the most Blessed Sacrament.
Catholics also refer to this sacrament as Holy Communion, because we share this banquet (Eucharist means “Thanksgiving”) of God with our brothers and sisters. The celebration was beautiful, in part because it was shared with like-minded pilgrims on a faith journey.
But almost a week later I was struck by a great contrast between the beautifully decorated houses I saw earlier in the day and the house named for Our Lady: Notwithstanding the warmth, beauty and coziness of those neighborhood houses, none invited me inside them; but this single house, one that was devoid of lights, tinsel and wreaths, made me feel most welcome–and even fed me!
As Jesus, the Bread of Life, teaches us in chapter 14 of the Gospel of John:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms. If that were not so would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you…”
Just five days later I attended a funeral Mass for my Uncle Jack Mooney, and was amazed that the Gospel reading for that good man was none other than…John 14!
Lord, help us to not be troubled when we are not invited into these houses, or into others that may seem to invite us by their outward appearances. Instead, help us to invite those around us into our places, that they may know our encounter with you by their encounter with us. Finally, help us to believe your promise that you have prepared a place for those who believe in you–with you!