The Gospel in Glass

What a joy to welcome everyone this afternoon to the rededication of the stained glass windows. Christ Church has an amazing story to tell today, one of generosity and accomplishment. Of course, Christ Church has always had an interesting story to tell. There are the historic facts, like its founding in 1839 and two major fires. The fire in 1938 prompted the construction of this building, which opened up the opportunity to obtain this amazing glass. Then there are the more apocryphal elements in the story of Christ Church. Like the one about the congregation deciding not to be the cathedral in order to keep the bishop at arm’s length. One of the other stories I’ve often heard is about Dr. William Witsell, who was the rector when this building was built. It’s often said that he had a particularly heavy hand in the design and details of the windows. I did a little digging, and sure enough, his heavy-handedness checks out. He guided the windows’ design down to minute detail.

Dr. Witsell and a building committee reviewed drawings of the windows and gave meticulous feedback to the Franz-Mayer Studios in New York. They sent comments on the drafts like these: “We are unanimous in our opinion that the representation of the boy Jesus in the Temple is too feminine. Indeed, he looks more like a girl than a boy… Then the garment of the boy comes down too far. As you perhaps have observed, it comes down to his feet, and that adds to the femininity of his appearance. All the pictures that we have been able to find recently show the garment coming down to the calf of the leg… Neither are we satisfied with the infant Jesus, as represented in that section. We do not like the expression on his face, and the hair looks like the bobbed hair of an older child. We also think that it would be better to have the face of the child turned towards the Mother.” Can you imagine these suggestions from the perspective of the artists? They were renown experts, having apprenticed in this work since their youth and having gone deeply into the scriptures themselves in order to create these masterful images. And then a priest came along, correcting their art. Apparently the artists were very gracious about it. And clearly, for all of the committee’s seeming heavy-handedness, the results are spectacular. It is rare these days to have a complete set of original glass with this fine of detail. And it is especially rare to have windows that tell an entire, sequential story. Ours begin with Isaiah’s prophecy of a messiah, and proceed to tell the story of Jesus and his church, from its founding at Pentecost all the way to Christ Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. I believe that Dr. Witsell and the committee knew what a rare opportunity they had on their hands. With the support of a generous community then, that sacred story came to life in this beautiful glass, dedicated in 1943. This detail might be apocryphal, but they did it all for about $12,000. 

Fast forward a little over 70 years, and Christ Church added a new chapter to its story. You might recall that if it was raining and the wind blew just right, a large puddle would form inside  the church right under the west window. Arkansas weather and time itself had taken their toll. The windows were buckling, and there were holes. Into this chapter stepped Ellen Gray, who wanted to do something in memory of her sister Carolyn. In talking with the rector, Scott Walters, restoring the windows seemed like a perfect tribute. With Ellen’s generosity, a capital campaign became possible. So a new window committee was formed and with some trepidation, they began to ask for donations. This detail now seems apocryphal in the telling of it, but I swear it’s true. To our surprise, the rest of the money was raised almost instantly. Soon after, scaffolding went up and for three years, batches of windows were shipped to the Mayer studio in Munich for repair. Through the generosity of the present-day Christ Church community, the windows are now fully restored and protected by exterior glass for the first time. The Christian story they tell will shine brightly for generations to come. All for a little over $1 million. 

I think It’s fair to ask about spending that kind of money on glass. There are a lot of good things we could do with $1 million. Whatever his motives, Judas wan’t completely wrong to ask about giving money to the poor instead of spending it on expensive perfume. But just like Dr. Witsell and his building committee, this community had an instinctual understanding of a rare opportunity. Restoring the windows was not just about keeping the glass intact. It was about caring for the gospel they contain. 

In various ways, the church has always taught that beauty and art are means through which we experience the holy. Stained glass as beautiful as this offers such an experience. In the early 5th century, St. Augustine wrote that beauty has the power to elevate our senses nearer to God. Beauty on earth is a kind of stepping stone to a higher beauty, as any church artist or musician will tell you. By its nature, beauty comforts us in our earthly pilgrimage. Beauty has the power to stir the soul, to help the soul turn away from sin and distraction, toward that which is holy. In their beauty, these windows help us turn toward the holy. 

Echoing this ancient teaching, Dr. Witsell put it in these words: “It must be very apparent to all… that this church is indeed not only a monument to Jesus Christ, but is the Gospel of Christ in wood and stone and glass which all may read.” Here we are, decades later, pilgrims on our own way, reading the gospel in glass. Anyone can walk into this church and see the good news of God in Christ, and know by that very access that the story is for them. Such epiphanies are made possible by these windows. Daylight shines through the windows and touches us all, including us all in that sacred story. The windows comfort us and instruct us; they stir our souls and bring us closer to God. The swift and generous response to the restoration campaign demonstrates that all of you understood this about the windows. Your love for this beautiful glass is a reflection of your love for the gospel itself. Thanks to you, future generations will have the same opportunity to read the gospel in this extraordinary glass.  

There was a prayer used at Christ Church while Dr. Witsell was rector, which was authorized for Sunday use by Bishop Mitchell. I think it captures the essence of why a community would undertake a window restoration project. As we celebrate its remarkable completion today, we have an opportunity to recall the prayer that was so much a part of this place years ago, and to pray it forward, for those who will be uplifted by the windows of Christ Church for years to come. Let us pray. 

“Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, though neither the heavens nor any material thing can contain Thee, yet Thou didst put it into the hearts and wills of Thy servants, members of this congregation to build this our Parish Church, to Thy honor and glory, and for the blessing and service of our fellows; Grant, therefore, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that this Thy Holy Temple may be forever a center and source of light, inspiration, and holy joy; of inward peace, comfort and strength to Thy children, as they face the temptations and problems, carry the burdens and bear the sorrows of life; and so may it ever be given a deeper place in our hearts and souls. These things we ask in the Name and Through the merits of Thy Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

Kate Alexander