You might have been wondering where the stained glass window on the front of your service sheet is from. It’s actually one of our chapel windows – the one on the right of the door as you come in. I’ve been giving a series of sermons on all seven windows, and this, the last one, fits well with the theme of our service tonight. You can see a full detail of it on the last page of your service sheet.
William Burgess, the architect behind the refurbishment of this chapel in the 1860s (you can see the date of its completion on the ceiling) was a Victorian who believed passionately in the power of the visual to communicate spiritual truths. So he covered the walls, ceilings and floors and furniture with people and themes from the Bible, church history, classical tradition and the natural world, whilst his glazier, Henry Holiday, applied his skills to the windows, on the theme of ‘Christ the Light of the World’. To say this chapel is rich in symbolism is an understatement. The illustrations often also served as a commentary on theological and social issues of the mid nineteenth century: the friezes around the windows reflect the debates about Darwinism and creation, for example, and the ceilings and the narthex reflect the nineteenth controversies about the relationship between Jews and Christians, and on the floor, behind the altar and in the windows we find suggestions of the disputes about the role of the church in society. In the 1860s, both undergraduates and fellows would have had to attend chapel daily for morning prayer, so there was plenty of opportunity for meditation on these things. Some hundred and fifty years later, we have lost so much of this interaction; and that is why I am trying to revive some of it in this series of sermons.
Our window tells its story just as the great cathedral windows would have done; predictably, its depiction of the visit of the magi, seems to reflect particular nineteenth-century British concerns about the nature of monarchies and the extent of their powers. The window is certainly a stylized depiction of the Gospel story. We no longer look into a stable, with the ox and ass, but rather look outwards from the entrance of a house; you can see the porticos, the silhouettes of the trees against the darkened sky, and the star casting its piercing shaft of light – almost like a sword – onto the Virgin and Child. Most importantly the visitors are no longer magi from the East, in traditional Oriental garb, but they are rulers of the kingdoms from the Western Christendom. Admittedly, the third figure in the background has a turban, but even he might typify the kingdom of the Turks – itself a relevant topic given the Crimean wars of the 1850s. But the other two – the one in red presenting myrrh, the one in gold and silver offering his golden crown – are distinctly Anglo-Saxon in physique and dress. The blue and black canopy, in the top left of the window, is embossed with royal symbols, and it protects the Virgin Mary, who in turn protects her baby son and holds a serene and regal pose. The infant Jesus, supported by Mary resting on a purple pillow, looks upwards and outwards: although only a few weeks old, he possesses a wisdom and composure way beyond his years. And we are included in this scene; together we can observe the contrast between the rulers who hold earthly but temporal power and the simple authority of the Christ-Child, whose kingdom we already know is in this world but not of it.
The details of this scene are taken from Matthew’s Gospel; they follow the reading the Provost gave a few minutes ago. Matthew records no stable, no ox and ass, no angels, no visit of the shepherds; all those details are in Luke’s Gospel. The setting is some time after Jesus’ birth, still in Bethlehem, but in a house. Matthew actually describes the visitors as ‘magi’- astrologers, following signs and portents through a star – not kings. But the kingship theme is undoubtedly a key part of Matthew’s story: the magi enquire in nearby Jerusalem as to the whereabouts of the ‘one born king of the Jews’, and the jealousy of king Herod, the references to Bethlehem, the birthplace of king David and the city where the promised ‘King of the Jews’ would be born, is deliberate.
So the scene in our window, with a certain artistic license, interprets Matthew’s account. It depicts the ‘kings of this world’ – in its nineteenth century setting probably from the kingdoms of Europe- paying homage to a baby whom they partially understand has a kingdom which surpasses theirs. It is a bizarre sight: those who hold power give it back to one who, in all the vulnerability of birthing and infancy, is utterly powerless. But this is what Burgess intended: if you look up above the window you will see a scroll held by the prophet Zechariah. Each window has its own caption through an unfurled scroll; the one over our window is taken from Zechariah 14:9: ‘And the Lord will become king over all the earth’.
The theme of ‘Christ the King’ has been a golden thread running throughout our service tonight, and given that we are starting the season of Advent, it is deliberate. We encountered it in our very first hymn, ‘Once in royal David’s city’, where we sang of Jesus’ first coming as a baby and his second coming as King over all the earth. We encountered the theme again as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy kingdom come… for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory…’. We heard it in the reading from Isaiah 9 which spoke about one who was to be born from the house of David and who would bring in the rule of God. And in the hymn ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ we sang of how ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ have been met in this Bethlehem birth.
So we could in fact end this sermon here. By looking at this window we could simply note that those who possess power and authority – and in our day we might choose instead those in government at home and abroad, and those leading our churches and, most relevantly in Oxford, those determining our education – we could simply note that those who possess power and authority serve their cause best when they recognize the temporal and temporary nature of their calling. This is an important message, and would that those who are in positions of power and authority could apply it more in their lives. But – because of our participation in the theme of Christ the King, we have to raise a further question: as we look through this window, together, what does all this mean for us?
The scene can mean a good deal to us. But we can only begin to take something from it when we appreciate that here we have just one example of what might be called the ‘upside-down’ nature of the Christian Gospel: it’s a theme which is developed not only in this window, but in the others as well, where in each case ‘Christ the Light of the World’ confounds human expectations of what a redeeming figure should be like. This reversal is there in the very first window, on the left of the door, which is of Mary receiving the message from angel Gabriel that she will give birth to Christ; we heard this story in an earlier reading, and it speaks of God confounding the mighty and powerful and rich and choosing the meek and powerless and poor through whom to bring about his work of salvation. The most vivid illustration is in the crucifixion window, behind me: here we have a moving image of Christ, the ‘King of the Jews’, who refutes worldly power and who affects salvation by being as vulnerable in his death as he was in his birth. The title over his cross is in fact, again, ‘King of the Jews’: it links together his birth and his death and shows us how the one who was born to be a different sort of king –for us- also dies as a different sort of king – for us. T.S. Eliot, in his poem The Visit of the Magi, also dwells on this theme. In the words of one of the magi, having returned to his land from that visit to Bethlehem, we hear:
Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We have evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
So the story of the Light of Christ, in its various stained glass hues, is of God’s attempt to penetrate the darkened human mind and the indifferent human heart through an element of ‘reversal’ and ‘surprise’. And our response? That even though we don’t fully understand, we try to believe. In the Christian Gospel we see again and again that Christ’s life and death is about the power of love, not about the love of power. Our response therefore has to be as simple yet as profound as that of the kings. In the words of the carol by Christina Rosetti which we heard the choir sing so movingly earlier:
What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a wise man,
I would do my part.
Yet what I can I give Him
Give my heart.
Perhaps as you sing our last hymn, ‘O Come all ye Faithful’- one which you might have sung so many times that you are in danger of ignoring its meaning – perhaps you can take time to ponder these things, reflect on this window, and make your own homage to the one whose purpose in coming into this world was to demonstrate, again and again, the power of love over and above the love of power.
Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow and Tutor in Theology
26th November 2006