Ethiopia: Through a glass brightly

When I was in Ethiopia a few years ago, I visited many Ethiopian Orthodox  churches. I was fascinated by the liturgy, conducted in Ge’ez, an old church  language that is no longer in everyday use. I did not understand a word but  neither did most ordinary churchgoers. The priests would, of course, teach in  the local language of the area, such as Amharic or Tigreyan, and literate  churchgoers could always read the Bible themselves.

But even those who were illiterate had no difficulty learning the stories of  the Bible because every church was decorated from floor to ceiling with vividly  painted frescoes. I could easily follow the stories told on the walls and felt  that I was entering a familiar environment. I realized that I was having an  experience similar to a medieval churchgoer in Europe, where people saw the  stories of their faith in the stained glass windows of churches and  cathedrals.

The earliest complete stained glass windows date from around the 12th  century. A few years ago, however, I was visiting St. Paul’s Church in Jarrow in  the north of England which was once the monastery that was home in the 7th  century to the famous monk and church historian known as the Venerable Bede (c.  672-735). In the Saxon chancel, there is a window made up of fragments believed  to be the oldest existing stained glass window in the world. It dates to 674  when Benedict Biscop founded the monastery and brought stained glass workers  from France to introduce the new technique of decorating a church with glass  that was both beautiful and educational.

The oldest complete stained glass windows are found in cathedrals like  Chartres in France and York Minister in England. Both have beautiful Tree of  Jesse windows that depict the Biblical genealogy of Jesus. Looking at them, I  have wondered how many pilgrims before me have studied those windows, pondering  the figures and finding that the gospel stories came alive because of the vivid  colors.

It saddens me to think of the countless stained glass windows that were  destroyed in the 16th century when the excesses of the Reformation led people to  smash them because they feared that the images amounted to idolatry. Glass is  such a delicate medium that many beautiful windows have been lost, some to  deliberate destruction, others (like Coventry Cathedral) as a consequence of  war, and still others because of neglect.

So I was concerned when I learned from former parishioners of St. Paul’s  Episcopal Church in Millis that they were unsure what the fate would be of the  stained glass windows in the church building once it was deconsecrated and sold.  I told them that I would be happy if some of the windows could find a home at  St. Michael’s in Holliston especially since several former Millis parishioners  were now valued members of our community.

With the support and assistance of the diocese, the stained glass windows  were removed from the St. Paul’s building. Six windows that fit well together  were selected for installation at St. Michael’s. We are now working with a firm  experienced in stained glass installation to determine the best design for  adding these windows to a building that is architecturally very different from  St. Paul’s.

If all goes well, the windows will be installed this spring. It is good to  think of future generations of children learning from these windows about Jesus’ fishing on the Sea of Galilee and later riding into Jerusalem on a donkey while  all of us enjoy the opportunity to meditate quietly on the images in beautiful  colors. As Milton said, the dim religious light of storied windows together with  the full-voiced choir and pealing organ may indeed “bring all Heaven before mine  eyes.”

Christine Whittaker is the priest at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church,  Holliston.


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