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A Senior Cross Service in a Time of Social Distancing

Pentecost Window

Detail of the Pentecost Window in the Westbrook Building of Duke Divinity School

Goodson Chapel at Duke Divinity School opened in 2006, and every year since a special service has been held for graduating students: the Senior Cross Service. The Statesville Glass Company in Statesville, N.C., created the stunning Pentecost Window in the Westbrook Building, and each year they create small glass crosses that are distributed to the graduating seniors during a service that includes a sermon and time of blessings.

The crosses are both a tactile way for the graduates to carry a piece of Duke Divinity School with them as they journey to a new stage of ministry and an expression of appreciation for these graduates who have been such an integral part of the life of the Divinity School in the past months and years.They deepen this community with their gifts and questions and insights and advocacy. They will forever be part of Duke Divinity, even as they go from these halls into their ministries in churches, chaplaincy, community service, and further academic study.

Thanks to the creativity and commitment of Chaplain Meghan Feldmeyer Benson and other Divinity staff, the Senior Cross Service was held to accommodate the remote learning and social distancing measures put in place in response to COVID-19. Nohemi Ramirez, staff specialist in the Office of the Chaplain and Anglican Episcopal House of Studies, went to Goodson Chapel to set up the display of crosses. The graduating seniors chose Sujin Pak, associate professor of the history of Christianity and vice dean of academic affairs, to give the sermon. She and Chaplain Benson were present in Goodson Chapel, and the service was live-streamed and recorded.

Remarks from Chaplain Meghan Feldmeyer Benson

There is a seven-year rotation of colors, with each color representing a different element of the liturgical calendar. This year the color is blue, which was the original color back in 2006. At one level, it obviously represents Duke blue. But in the Christian liturgical year, blue represents Advent. I think of blue as the color of gestation. In Advent, not only is the God of all creation being knit and formed in Mary’s womb, but we wait in eager anticipation to discover what new thing God is doing just beyond our sight. Blue is also the one of the colors of preparation—Lent being the other. For much of the tradition, purple was used for both Advent and Lent, but many churches began to use blue for Advent, in part to acknowledge that it is very different to prepare for a birth than to prepare for a death. Ideally, when preparing for a birth, there is a sense of joy and eager anticipation, but even with a complex or unexpected pregnancies, there is the possibility of noble preparation.

blue glass crossesI’d like to suggest that this season of Divinity School is a gestation season, a womb season. You were all fearfully and wonderfully made when you entered these halls, and yet a new kind of gestation and formation has been taking place these last several years. The formation has involved coursework and field education and hours in the library. It’s included worship and free lunches and long nights of study and conversations and laughter. The formation has involved faculty and friendships, and even fights—but in the mysterious economy of God, all of these things are gathered into the waters of grace that Christ has used and will continue to use to nurture and knit you each of you together in holy and unique ways. You have been in this Duke Divinity School womb–some of you have no doubt found it warm and cozy, others may have felt it was dark and cramped. Certainly, as growth happened, the kicking and squirminess become more intense. Like with any pregnancy, your presence in our midst has also fundamentally changed our body and impacted the body of Christ in this place. We are grateful that you’ve been part of us.
Hand holding blue crossbasket of blue glass crossesOne more thing about these crosses. This cross, when you hold it in your hand, it doesn’t really look blue. It just looks like really dark glass. And yet when you hold it up to the light, the color and beauty shines through. God has been forming and preparing each of you in this season of gestation, and when you hold this season up to Christ’s light, my prayer is that the color bursts forth in your life, and that these blue crosses will remind you of God’s presence in the preparing, and God’s redeeming of the preparation, and perhaps they will remind you of all the folks who’ve shared this season of life together. Friends, Advent is drawing to a close. The birth pangs are beginning. It’s time to be born again. God’s world awaits!

Usually the distribution of crosses occurs at the end of the service as the graduating seniors come to the front of Goodson Chapel to receive a cross and a blessing from a Duke Divinity staff or faculty member. With no way to gather on campus, how could students receive their crosses? This is a key part of the service that can’t be translated virtually online.

Meghan Benson Camille Pederson

Chaplain Meghan Benson (left) and senior Camille Pederson at the distribution of senior crosses.

Chaplain Benson came up with the creative solution to divide the graduating class into small groups, assign each group a window of time, and have them pick up their crosses from her home driveway. For over four hours, she and other Divinity staff stood outside to ensure that seniors could collect their cross while someone in the driveway offered them a blessing. Social distancing procedures and protection measures including masks and gloves were used.

Although a residential driveway is a far cry from the serene beauty of Goodson Chapel, both students and staff transformed it into a joyful space. One student came with a car full of family members who honked and cheered. Others came with roommates or spouses and took photos. “I am grateful Duke found a way to make the cross ceremony happen,” said senior Camille Pederson. “It was so meaningful for me. I was able to celebrate with my housemates and it was a gift to be able to see some Duke people when I picked it up.”

The Senior Cross Service is, by far, my favorite service of the year. There is so much beauty to the nature of physically giving each deserving student such a sentimental piece of Duke Divinity School. Alumni have said they use their crosses for everything from a paper weight in their offices that provides visual comfort after difficult counseling sessions to a display in their kitchen window that, when it catches the light just right, transports them back to the Pentecost window, and so on. While the gift can fit in the palm of their hand, the smiles on their faces when they receive their cross is much larger.

I love that this moment each year is celebrated with the student, alone. Let’s face it, the pomp and circumstance of graduation is a space for families and friends to cheer, brag, and celebrate their graduate. But this service – the senior cross service – is about the students as a reflection of their time at the Divinity School. And while this year they didn’t sit in Goodson, or have an opportunity to hug their classmates, there was still so much beauty on that Friday afternoon. I was thankful for the invitation to be there in that cul-de-sac. To wave pom-poms, blow bubbles, cheer, and wave goodbye to this year’s graduates. Gloves, masks, and pandemics couldn’t stop that. I hope to remember each year’s celebration, but this one will always have a special place in my heart.

Callie Davis, staff assistant for Baptist House of Studies

You can watch the 2020 Senior Cross Service!

Thank you to everyone who made this Senior Cross Service possible! With the creative, generous efforts of so many Duke Divinity staff members, the graduating seniors were able to have a memorable service and distribution of their crosses despite the disruption caused by COVID-19. The service might have been socially distanced, but it was still spiritually meaningful, representing part of what makes Duke Divinity School a wonderful community to prepare for ministry.

Duke Divinity School’s mission is to engage in spiritually disciplined and academically rigorous education in service and witness to the Triune God in the midst of the church, the academy, and the world.