Saint Mary’s Heaton Norris is graced by some fine stained-glass windows.
Up above the altar at the east end is one that depicts the Calvary scene of Our Lord’s crucifixion and death. This window is original to the church, which opened in 1897.
God, of course, is everywhere (as the answer to question 21 of the Catechism tells us). But in Our Blessed Lord, God assumed a human body, and so entered into the space and time of this world. It’s not inappropriate, therefore, to think of God being represented in a special way by a particular direction in space, and turning towards that direction for prayer – especially our communal prayer together. Other religions naturally do this – and, in a custom that goes back to our very beginnings, the traditional direction for Christian prayer is the east.
This is why Christian churches were designed, wherever possible, with their focal point to the east, towards which everyone faced for prayer. That’s how it is here at Saint Mary’s. In the traditional form of Mass, the altar would be positioned at that east end. The altar acted as a kind of bridge between God and his people – God beyond the altar to the east (as it were), priest and people together facing him from the church side of the altar. At the climax of Holy Mass, Our Blessed Lord, who made peace between God and his people through sacrificing his life on Calvary, offers himself anew – this time, under the outward appearance of the bread and wine upon the altar, and acting through the ordained priest. Traditionally, the priest stood at the altar at the head of his people, facing east with them. Up above, a window depicting the crucifixion (such as we have) was a reminder of the miracle Our Lord performs upon the altar at every Mass.
In such windows, the central figure is always (of course) the crucified Christ – God the Son made Man, offering up his life for the redemption of sinful Man. We see Our Lord, as the Gospel accounts describe, nailed by his hands and feet to the wooden cross. A sign is affixed to the cross above his head reading ‘INRI’ – short for Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, Latin for ‘Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews’. This is the inscription Pilate fastened to the cross, as noted in John 19,19-22. Our Lord’s body is colourless – he has died.
Our Lord, God the Son made Man, offered his life as a sacrifice to God that was perfectly pleasing. It delighted God so perfectly, it won the offer of pardon for all sinners – rather like the sacrifice Noah made after the Great Flood had subsided (Genesis 8,21). And windows of this kind often attempt to show God, up above Calvary, receiving the sacrifice.
It’s impossible to portray God satisfactorily, of course – but it’s always interesting to see how such windows make the attempt. In our window, God is up at the very top – as befits ‘the Supreme Spirit, who alone exists of himself, and is infinite in all perfection’. A triangle – a single figure, yet with three sides – depicts the one God, who is at the same time three persons: the Father who is God, the Son who is God, and the Holy Spirit who is God. God the Father is represented by the venerable figure with the long white beard (symbolizing God’s eternity), robed in a red cape with a multi-tiered crown upon his head (symbolizing God’s infinite majesty), and extending his arms to receive the obedient sacrifice of God the Son. Rays of divine glory radiate from behind him, and God the Holy Spirit is between Father and Son, represented by a dove. The Holy Spirit appeared in the form of a dove, of course, when Our Lord was baptized in the Jordan, and the Father’s voice was heard, saying of Jesus: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matthew 3,16-17).
I’ll say some more about this window tomorrow.