In my line of work, I see a lot of stained-glass windows depicting either scenes from the life of Christ or various Christian symbols. But until I ventured into the gothic wooden grandeur of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego and beheld the huge east transept window, I had never before seen a window showing Christ and the rich young man — the one who went away sad because Christ said to him, “Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” In that window, the young man stands with one hand on his hip, his eyes following Christ’s gesture toward the ragged poor in the background. The symbol overhead is a cross and crown — signifying, suggested a friendly congregant, the need for the “rich young ruler” to be joined to Christ. The image is lovely, almost sumptuous, even as it points toward the plight of the destitute.
“Come back this afternoon,” said pastor Jerry Andrews when I spoke to him. “We feed the homeless here every Sunday. And every other Saturday, we have a food giveaway — that’s mostly for people in distress.” Many of them, I later learned, are low-income seniors living in the residential towers built by the downtown Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches in the ’70s.
That was Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening, however, featured a different sort of program: the church’s annual Feast of Lights. “This year’s service will be in the form of Lessons & Carols,” read the brochure, “as is done traditionally at Cambridge in England. There will be three choirs, an orchestra of San Diego Symphony musicians...and the traditional living Nativity.” The extended stage was already in place, as was the manger setting where the infant Christ would be wrapped in swaddling clothes.
(“Bring your neighbor,” urged Andrews during the announcements. “These people wonder why church is important to you...why you’ve invested your lives in these things, why these things sustain you in life. You haven’t talked to them about it, and that confuses them.”)
The extended stage was necessary because there wasn’t much room in the Sanctuary. A small portable pulpit held center stage; a much larger and more permanent version anchored stage right. But mostly, the space was filled with rising choir benches and fronted by an organ whose pipes crowded the walls above in layer upon gleaming silver layer. Benches and organ both got a proper workout; booming choruses gave way to gently twining duets, and Bach’s “Sleepers, Wake” at the outset became Dupre’s “Magnificat: Gloria” by the end. (My scribbled note on the latter: “organ goes crazy.”) “Come, thou long-expected Jesus...”
Sunday fell in the thick of Advent. Lighting three candles on the wreath, congregant Audrey Steidl noted that it was “a sign of the coming light of Christ. ‘Advent’ means ‘coming.’” The confession of sins asked forgiveness “for our false and fickle pursuit of happiness” amid the deafening “sounds of the season.” And the kids got shepherds, angels, sheep, and Lassie(!) on a felt display board before being sent to Sunday school.
Andrews’s sermon followed an intricate path, noting Bethlehem’s presence throughout Scripture. He began with Rachel’s death on the way to Bethel — she died giving birth and used her last breath to name her child Benoni, “son of my sorrow.” Jacob, the boy’s father, changed his name to Benjamin: “‘son of my right’ or ‘son of my joy.’” Then Andrews progressed to Ruth, who returned to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, eventually becoming great-grandmother to David — the king. And, of course, there was the journey to Bethlehem made by Joseph and Mary. “Is the son to be born to Mary to be the son of sorrow or the king of joy? Luke and Matthew want us to know that the answer is yes.” Jesus “becomes the man of sorrows and the sole cause of the world’s rejoicing.”
In his closing prayer, Andrews asked, “Father, You know fathers and mothers who are poor. Mothers who labor in tragic circumstances. Children born in hostile surroundings. These are families in sorrow. We know...both by the change of their circumstances and the revelation of the Savior to them, they can become families of joy. Where fathers and mothers in love conceive children and give birth to their hearts’ desires.... As Jacob renamed his son, rename our generation, so that it will not be one of uninterrupted sorrow for those who are poor and who labor on journeys not of their choosing...for to them a child has been born, and a Son is given.”
What happens when we die?
“These are things for which we trust God,” said Andrews. “We are made for Him, and so we trust that we’ll be with Him, and we take comfort in that.”
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA
320 Date Street, Downtown San Diego
Founded locally: 1869
Senior pastor: Jerry Andrews
Congregation size: 800
Staff size: 40, including school
Sunday school enrollment: 100
Weekly giving: n/a
Annual budget: $1.5 million, not including school
Singles program: no
Dress: semi-formal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 5 minutes