About 10 minutes before the start of the Interfaith service at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross today, Mayor Thomas M. Menino was wheeled up to a nearly empty altar. There he sat, a strikingly solitary figure, hands clasped, head bowed.
He seemed fragile but determined, much like Boston this week.
Nominally a religious service, it was instead dominated by three secular figures intent on repairing Boston's battered heart and soul.
Menino, Governor Deval Patrick and — especially — President Obama spoke with grit and compassion to an overflow audience about this brutal and bewildering week, proclaiming their shared love for Boston.
They praised first responders and residents, the people who ran toward the scene of disaster when it struck when it would have been so much easier to run away. They did their best to comfort the families of the fallen. And they vowed that Boston will emerge whole from the bombing that has claimed three lives and irrevocably altered so many others.
First, Menino. He was helped up to the podium, and speaking appeared to take more effort than usual. Nevertheless, he delivered a heartfelt message of thanks to the many people who stood tall in the wake of tragedy.
Menino has made an annual tradition of greeting Marathon winners at the finish line, a tradition interrupted this year because he was in the hospital being treated for a broken leg. He has appeared to take this tragedy, at this event, almost personally.
"Nothing can defeat the heart of this city," he declared today. "Nothing will take us down because we take care of one another. Even with the smell of smoke in the air, blood on the streets, tears in our eyes, we triumphed over that hateful act on Monday afternoon. It is a glorious thing, the love and the strength that covers our city."
Menino drew the first standing ovation of the emotional service, a salute to his eloquently expressed love for the city. It was a reminder that his bond to Boston will be hard for any successor to replicate.
Menino was followed by Patrick, ostensibly introducing Obama. I've watched Patrick introduce his friend the president three times, and they are three of the best speeches I've seen him give. On this somber day, he returned to one of his familiar themes, civic unity.
He offered an idealist's vision of what Monday's tragedy will mean for Massachusetts.
"We will recover and repair," Patrick said. "We will grieve our losses and heal. We will rise and we will endure, we will have accountability, without vengeance. Vigilance, without fear. And we will remember, I hope and pray, long after the buzz of Boylston Street is back and the media has turned its attention elsewhere, that the grace this tragedy exposed is the best of who we are."
Obama, of course, has a passion for the area. He went to law school here became a national political figure speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention here. Thursday wasn't just a day of obligation for him.
At the same time. he has also become an all-too-accomplished national eulogist. Boston has now joined the list of cities in which he has comforted the families of the dead, visited the wounded, and assured survivors that less traumatic days lay ahead.
I heard some commentators say after the speech that the president had sounded a defiant tone, but that wasn't what I took away. (That would have been his Wednesday speech after the Senate killed background checks for gun buyers. It was perhaps his greatest public display of anger.)
Obama vowed, rightly, that the perpetrators will be found and brought to justice. But he also declared that our greatest power lies in love.
"Our faith in each other, our love for each other, out love for country, our common creed that cuts across whatever superficial difference there may be — that is our power," Obama said, "That's our strength."
That faith is easy to declare at a moment of tragedy and sorrow, but not always easy to hold onto. As much as we crave healing, we also demand justice.
Yet the faith that this tragedy will somehow be endured is the only way forward. That, as Patrick put it, the grace it unleashed will lead us to our best selves.
Obama pointed to another reason to hold firm to hope.
"And this time next year, on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever, and to cheer even louder, for the 118th Boston Marathon," he declared.
At that thought, a somber crowd erupted in applause and joy.