Here, following on from yesterday, are a few more personal thoughts about the east window here at Saint Mary’s Heaton Norris.
As I was saying, many churches have a depiction of Calvary for an east window, just above the action of the Mass taking place on the altar. They were installed to remind us that in that sacred action on the altar below, the same sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated throughout the ages.
Windows of this kind nearly always depict Our Blessed Lady and Saint John either side of the Cross. Their presence at Calvary is recorded in John 19,26-27. On the left, Our Lady’s eyes are swollen with tears, as she shares Our Lord’s bitter grief for the salvation of the world. I was taught as a boy that John was the youngest of the apostles (perhaps yet a mere teenager) – and that’s how he’s shown in our window. John is also barefoot. This reminds me of how God made Moses remove his shoes on Mount Horeb, as he approached the bush that ‘was blazing and yet not consumed’ by the fire: “Take off the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3,5). John’s Gospel account is perhaps the most contemplative of the four, and he stands barefoot, perceiving that here, supremely, is holy ground.
John tells us (19,25) that Mary of Magdala was also among the women who stood near the Cross – and our east window includes her in the scene. Mary of Magdala led a lewd and disorderly life in her youth, giving her a bad name in the district (Luke 7,39) – and divine chastisement delivered her over to be possessed by seven devils (Mark 16,9). But one day, Our Lord, grieving over her spiritual miseries (as he grieves over all sinners), had, perhaps through his public teaching, spread upon her soul a beam of his divine light. This so penetrated Mary of Magdala’s heart that she was filled with detestation of her sins. She boldly approached Jesus as he dined in the house of Simon the pharisee, and her sincere repentance deserved to hear from Our Lord’s lips the wonderful pronouncement that her sins were forgiven her (Luke 7,36-50). She was at the same time delivered from the demons. To receive such a gift filled Mary of Magdala thereafter with the most ardent love for her merciful redeemer. This ardour is portrayed in our window by the way she clings so passionate to the foot of Our Lord’s Cross – that being the price he so lovingly and willingly paid to win mercy for her and for all repentant sinners. Mary of Magdala’s presence in our east window is a hope and encouragement to us all – a reminder that, thanks to the sacrifice of Calvary and Mass, no living person need be beyond redemption.
As Our Lord hung upon his Cross, “darkness came over the whole land” (Matthew 27,45) – perhaps an eclipse of the sun. The sun is depicted in our window – shining above Our Lady’s head, but then eclipsed over Saint John’s head. The darkness is effectively portrayed by the murky red background. This reminds me of an eery memory from early childhood – when I ‘helped’ someone develop some photographs in his dark room.
Finally, you see either side of the Cross in our window something grey, twisting and rising, then crossing behind Pilate’s inscription, winding behind Our Lady and Saint John’s heads, up across the angels in the two little windows, and finally meeting around God in the topmost window. What is it? It took me a while to work out. It’s incense, rising to God with its delectable fragrance.
I mentioned yesterday the sacrifice Noah offered after the Great Flood had subsided. Genesis 8,21 tells us that “when the LORD smelt its pleasing odour”, he promised never again to destroy every living creature as he had done. I’ve always liked that highly anthropomorphic image of God – so delighted with the aroma of Noah’s offering, it wins his mercy. Our Lord’s offering of himself on Calvary is so infinitely pleasing to God, it has won the offer of pardon for all sinners – and Our Lord again offers up its rich savour at every Mass. Our east window depicts it rising like fragrant incense to God – both from Calvary, and from every Mass offered on the altar just below it. It reminds me of the prayer that accompanies the offering of the chalice during Mass: “We offer to You, O Lord, the chalice of salvation, beseeching Your clemency, that it may ascend before Your divine Majesty as a sweet savour, for our salvation and for that of the whole world”.
This is my favourite feature of this beautiful window. I call it my cum odore suavitatis ascendat window – Latin for ‘may it ascend as a sweet savour’.
Either side of this window are windows reflecting the original English and Irish background to Saint Mary’s church. I’ll speak about these over the next couple of days.