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The National Cathedral was at its best at Bush funeral

The National Cathedral was at its best at Bush funeral
Princes, prime ministers, a king and queen, a cardinal, a rabbi and an imam looked on

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
December 6, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC --- Episcopalians are very good at pomp and ceremony. So, when President George H.W. Bush's state funeral was held Wednesday (Dec. 5) morning, the National Cathedral shone. Everything was in place. All movements were practiced and perfected. The music -- classic Episcopal hymnology -- was presented with a smooth melding of choristers, orchestra and organ.

The day, however, started at the Capitol and ended with Air Force One winging its way to Texas. In the middle was the State Funeral Service held at the National Cathedral.

There was not only the blending of voices, instruments and organ, there was also the blending of the military and caviling, the secular and sacred all coming together at the National Cathedral.

The day dawned cloudy and cold. In fact, it was as cold in Washington, DC, as it was in parts of Texas as the temperatures dipped below 32 degrees. In Texas, the sun came up and temperatures quickly warmed up, climbing into the low 60s. In Washington, the sun stayed hidden behind the clouds and the temperatures never got much above freezing and with a brisk breeze the wind chill factor stayed below the subfreezing mark. Snow was threatening.

George H. W. Bush was not only the former president of the United States, and therefore, the former commander-in-chief of the armed services. He also was the next to last living American president to see combat in the military. He was a Navy pilot whose plane was shot down while on a bombing raid off the USS Sable while in the Pacific Ocean.

He was also the last of the G.I. Generation to be elected as president. President Carter, too, is a World War II veteran. The elderly former president is a graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis and served as a Navy lieutenant. He served as the 39th president, 12 years before 41st president took office.

All men elected to office since after Bush-41 have been Baby Boomers, including his son George W. Bush.

Because Bush was a Navy man and Commander-in-Chief, the top brass of the Joint Chiefs of Staff showed up -- admirals and generals -- all decked out in their finest Class A uniforms of their particular branch of service -- Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard and Air Force.

The military played a large part in the state funeral of a president. It is from their ranks that the pallbearers are chosen. Also, the various military bands provided live music for the transferring the president's body to a new venue. Even though George H. W. Bush was a decorated military man and the former Commander-in-Chief, other than the playing of Ruffles and Flourishes and Hail to the Chief -- the Presidential Anthem -- he did not choose patriotic songs to accompany him along his way. He was first a Christian, so various Episcopal hymns were played at each location.

At the Capitol, the Navy Band played a repeated melody of "My Faith Looks Up to Thee" and "Nearer My God to Thee" as Bush was carried down the Capitol steps and loaded into the awaiting hearse. He chose not to use a horse-drawn caisson. He was simply transported to the National Cathedral in a hearse proceeded by police motorcycles driving at a walker's pace. While enroute to the Cathedral, the tenor bell tolled 41 times in honor of the 41st president.

The Coast Guard Band was waiting for the president when he arrived and struck up "For All the Saints" as he was carefully carried into the Cathedral. He was met at the great doors of the Cathedral by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and Bishop Marianne Budde (X Washington).

"With faith in Jesus Christ," the Presiding Bishop's voice rang out. "We received the body of our brother George for burial ..."

Presiding Bishop Curry dressed in choir vestments and a black tippet, clutched his primatial staff. Bishop Budde had a white stole draped over her choir vestments as she held her diocesan bishop's crozier.

This is the first time in history that an Episcopal presiding bishop has participated in a state funeral and there have been several held at the National Cathedral. As always, the sitting Bishop of Washington was involved and there is always a standing invitation for the presiding bishop to join in. This time the sitting presiding bishop accepted the offer.

"Let us pray also for all who mourn," Bishop Budde added. "that they may cast their care on God and know the consolation of His love ..."

The two bishops were accompanied by Cathedral Dean Randolph Hollerith and Fr. Russell Levenson, the Bush family priest from St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas.

Waiting for the former president in the Cathedral was the "Presidents' Club"-- all the still-living presidents who came together to honor one of their own, while witnessing a dress rehearsal of their own future presidential state funeral. Sitting together in the front were an aging President Jimmy Carter and his First Lady Rosalynn; a gray-haired President Bill Clinton and his First Lady Hillary; retired President Barack Obama and his First Lady Michelle; and sitting President Donald Trump and his First Lady Melania. One final member of the Presidents' Club -- George W. Bush and his First Lady Laura--chose to sit with the Bush clan -- brothers Jeb, Neil, Marvin and sister Dorothy and their spouses and families.

Former First Daughters were in attendance too, including: Chelsea Clinton (Bill Clinton); Susan Ford (Gerald Ford); Luci and Lynda Johnson (Lyndon Johnson) and Tricia Nixon (Richard Nixon), all of whom attended First Lady Barbara Bush's April funeral in Texas. Missing is First Daughter Caroline Kennedy (John. F. Kennedy) who did attend the Bush funeral in Houston.

This was a time that politics is stripped away -- Republicans ... Democrats ... Independents ... conservatives ... liberals ... traditionalists ... All identities and differences are muted with contact with the God of eternity and the committing of another's soul to His loving care and providence. A carefully crafted ritual of democracy was unfolding on nationwide television.

As the funeral cortege entered the great cathedral, a host of ecumenical and interfaith clerics silently joined the procession, including: Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the cardinal-archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington; Bishop Richard Graham, the metropolitan of the Washington, D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America; Archbishop Demetrios Trakatellis, the elder archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America; Reformed Rabbi Susan Shankman, the rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation; and Imam Mohamed Magid, the president of the Islamic Society of North America and the executive religious director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) Center, the largest Muslim mosque in the Washington area. They came as silent witnesses to the Episcopal funeral of a former president.

A state funeral is carefully orchestrated by the Joint Task Force of the Department of Defense. That is the group that threads together all the various components of the event so that the all military aspects of the funeral, the civil pieces of the event and the various religious parts of the funeral come together seamlessly and are pulled off with military precision.

President Bush put careful thought into his state funeral. He submitted a 211-page draft outlining the details of his funeral, including plans for a service at the National Cathedral. He made sure the focus of the state funeral would be spiritual, rather than political. Few patriotic songs were played, opting instead for the tried and true hymns of The Episcopal Church including: "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" ... "The King of Love My Shepherd Is" ... "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past" ... "For All the Saints Who From Their Labors Rest" ... "My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" ...

The few patriotic and military songs included: "God of Our Fathers" ... "America the Beautiful" ... "Hymn to the Fallen" ... "Last Full Measure of Devotion" ... and the Navy Hymn -- "Eternal Father Strong to Save."

Bush-41 was very familiar with the National Cathedral. He was president when the Cathedral was completed and dedicated in 1990. At the time he prayed: "God speed the work completed this noon and the new work yet to begin." Then 12 years later in 2001, when his son Bush-43 was president and the nation came together for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service following 9/11, Bush-41 was there not only as a former president, but more importantly as a father. It was as a father he reached over and held the hand of his son--the President--giving gentle parental support and encouragement during his son's time of national crisis.

The Bush funeral at the National Cathedral revealed a young man who was a military hero under fire, a man who matured into statesman and world leader, a man who was a loyal friend, a man who was a loving husband and father and a man who was a deeply devoted Christian in love with his Lord and committed to his church.

Presidential historian Jon Meacham told of how a young Lt.(jg) George Bush had his airplane shot out from under him on a bombing raid on Chichijima, a Japanese island in the Pacific, during the early days of World War II. He alone survived the fiery downing of his plane. The rest of his crew perished and he carried that deep woundedness to his grave.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney revealed a seasoned statesman on the world stage. He explained that the Soviet Union imploded, the Berlin Wall came down followed by the reunification of Germany, the quick victory in Gulf War I, the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Acid Raid accord with Canada all occurred on President Bush's watch.

Canada's former Prime Minister Mulroney was not the only foreign leader to come and pay their respects to the American president. Other current, former and future foreign leaders in attendance included: Prince Charles and former Prime Minister Sir John Major (England); Chancellor Angela Merkel (Germany); Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove (Australia); President Andrzej Duda and former President Lech Walesa (Poland); King Abdullah II and Queen Rania (Jordan): Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalif (Bahrain); President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (Mexico); Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (Japan); Premier Sir John Swan (Bermuda); President Aníbal Silva (Portugal); President Toomas Hendrik Ilves (Estonia); and Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (Kuwait).

Retired Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY) brought the congregation to laughter as he recounted the many anecdotes from a long personal intimate friendship he had with George Bush which stretched back to 1962. The senator revealed his friend, the president, as a man of great humor, a loving man, a noble man, a loyal friend, a competitive man, a courageous man and a man a great self-discipline.

President George W. Bush -- the eldest son -- eulogized his own father by sharing precious family memories before a packed church and the world looking in via live streaming. The younger Bush was shaped into who he is by the elder Bush and as a son, he saw George HW Bush first as his Dad.

"As Dad aged, he taught us (the five remaining Bush children) how to grow with dignity and humor," the son said of his father. "And when the good Lord finally called, how to meet Him with courage and with the joy of the promise of what is ahead."

A second daughter, Robin, died as a toddler from leukemia. That is a loss that father George and mother Barbara Bush never got over.

In seeing George HW Bush as a president, Bush-43 said this about Bush-41: "Dad taught me another special lesson. He showed me what it means to be a president who serves with integrity, leads with courage and acts with love in his heart for the citizens of our country."

"Dad, we're going to miss you," Bush-43 said to his father, with the world looking on. "So, through our tears, let us know the blessings of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man ..."

"The best father a son or daughter can have ..." Bush said while breaking down in tears at the lectern. "... and in our grief let us smile knowing that Dad is hugging Robin and holding Mom's hand again."

Leaving the lectern and passing his father's flag-draped casket, the younger Bush gave it a pat as the congregation burst into spontaneous applause.

There was one final person called to pay tribute to the former president, his priest from Houston -- Fr. Levenson. The Episcopal priest's focus was not remembering George HW Bush as a war hero, or as an up and coming politician, or even as a president. His focus was on the fact that Bush-41 was a Christian, a believer in Jesus Christ.

"Ladies and gentlemen ... children of God, when death comes, and it does to us all, life is changed, not ended," the Houston priest started.

He continued by explaining the qualities of life that the former president had. Qualities he had observed up close over a span of 12 years. As George and Barbara Bush's parish priest, he has shared tears and silence, times of strength and times of weakness.

"President Bush was a good man, a decent man, a godly man, full of grace and love and a quality of absolute necessity to enter the Kingdom of God -- humility," the priest preached, his booming voice echoing off the Cathedral stone walls.

"The job of a pastor, priest, an imam, a rabbi when dealing with someone they are called to serve is to call on them to look to God to do the right thing, to serve others and to love," Fr. Levenson explained. "President Bush made my job so easy."

"Jesus Christ, for George Bush, was at the heart of his faith. His was a deep faith, a generous faith, a simple faith -- in the best sense of the word. He knew and lived Jesus' two greatest commandments to love God and to love your neighbor," St. Martin's rector explained. "He lived his own adage that tolerance is a virtue not a vice. He respected and befriended Christians of every denominations, as well as Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists and sheiks. His comrades were from every nation and race. Yes, he was a Republican. But for him political parties were but a line in the sand to brush away in times for the greater good at working onwards his goal for all of us to be that kinder and gentler nation."

"God is light and the President reflected that light his whole life through," the priest preached. "The President understood that even in the darkest of nights things can be transformed if handed over to the redemptive power of the Almighty.

The Houston priest recounted the story of what he witnessed during Bush's final dying hours, as the president's former chief-of-staff and close personal friend, Jim Baker, rubbed Bush's feet to give him comfort as the Lord called him closer to home.

"Here I witnessed a world leader who was serving a servant who had been our world's leader," he remembered. "What came to mind was Jesus."

Then remembering Bush-41's final moments as he, along with members of the Bush family and choice personal friends, walked their Christian brother to the edge of time, the priest said: "At the end, we all knelt. We all placed our hands on the President. We said our prayers together and then we were silent for a full long measure as this man who changed all of our lives, who changed our nation, who changed our world, left this life for the next. It was a beautiful end; it was a beautiful beginning. So, a moment -- a moment only -- that dear point of light we know as George Herbert Walker Bush dimmed, but it now shines brighter than it ever has before."

Turning to the casket and reaching out, the priest said: "Mr. President ... Mission complete ... Well done, good and faithful servant ... Welcome to your eternal home where ceiling and visibility are unlimited, and life goes on forever."

Surrounded by the other bishops and priests at the funeral, it was Fr. Levenson, Bush's parish priest from Houston, who prayed the committal prayers.

Stretching for his hand over the casket he prayed: "Into Your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend Your servant George. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech You, a sheep of Your own fold, a lamb of Your own flock, a sinner of Your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of Your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the Saints in light."

Presiding Bishop Curry then gave the final benediction, signaling the end of the National Cathedral's part in the state funeral of a former president.

When the funeral was over, it was time to go back out into the cold and for President Bush to continue his journey on to Texas and his final resting place. The clergy donned thick black capes, sometimes called cemetery capes, to ward off the biting wind. As the former president's casket was brought back down the aisle, proceeded by the American flag in front and the presidential flag behind, all stood; some mourners simply placed their hands over their hearts, others bowed to the processional cross, and a few stood to full attention and saluted the World War II veteran and their former commander-in-chief. The Episcopal clergy joined in the congregational singing of For All the Saints.

At the stairs, Bush-41 was again met with Ruffles and Flourishes and Hail to the Chief, with the Coast Guard Band immediately going into playing "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name" as the casket was again loaded into the hearse for the trip to Andrew's Air Force base to fly one last time aboard Air Force One, renamed Special Mission 41, to Texas.

As the hearse pulled away from the Cathedral, the Cathedral's bells were rung, announcing to all that the president was leaving one last time.

The Bushes were met at Andrews by the Air Force Band. Again, Ruffle and Flourishes were played followed by Hail to the Chief -- a staple for an American president. Then the band played a Gaither tune -- "Goin' Home." President George Herbert Walker Bush was "goin' home" back to Texas. The Bush family accompanied him on Special Mission 41, as did his priest, Fr. Levenson.

Fr. Levenson's task was not yet over. He would be conducting a second funeral on Thursday (Dec. 6) in St. Martin's in Houston. That funeral would not be celebrated as much for a former president, but rather for a friend, a neighbor, a Houstonian and a Texan; someone who just happened to be the 41st President of the United States.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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