Ever since the apartment building starting rising next door, people have been asking about the stained glass windows on the east side of the church. They have now gone dark even in the daytime. Will we ever be able to enjoy them again? Well, first of all, the darkness is greater now than it will be when the building is completed. Scaffolding has been erected between the wall of the church and the outside wall of the new building, which effectively blocks out any sunlight that might otherwise be able to squeeze through the breezeway. When the scaffolding comes down sometime next year, there will be more natural light.
Beyond that, something else will be needed to assist the sun do its job. One idea that was floated was to use a system of mirrors to reflect the natural light on to the windows. Whether that will prove to be practical or not, I do not know. The other option is backlighting. Although it is presently not operational, the Assumption window behind the altar is backlit and (when the wires are reconnected) we will again get to enjoy it in spite of the parking deck that blocks the light for much of the day.
It is always interesting when things come full cycle. Most of the stained glass windows in our church (all the ones with a blue background) date from the mid 1960’s. The old windows contained a lot of clear glass and had only small religious symbols in stained glass. Why were they so simple? Because prior to 1960 our church was hemmed in by buildings that blocked most of the sunlight. The old four story rectory rose to a height roughly equal to the height of the church and was only a few feet away on the east side. An even taller factory building occupied the lot west of the church where our present rectory and our soon to be resurrected garden are. So, there was really no point in investing in elaborate stained glass windows. No one would have been able to appreciate them. It was only after the people and the factories had largely abandoned the neighborhood that we had sunlight on both sides of the church. Now that property values have skyrocketed, the sun is being squeezed out once again.
The present windows were donated by a number of the individuals and families that kept Assumption alive when there were no resident parishioners. Many people assume they are older than they are because they are very traditional in style—and thus do not look dated when styles change. In other places in the 1950’s and 1960’s, artists were experimenting with color, style, and design. My cousins belonged to a parish in Memphis that built a new church in 1962. I can still hear my aunt screaming about one of the windows: “There’s a green Jesus! Jesus is green!”
Stained glass windows, by the way, were not meant to be just decorative. Through much of Christian history, when most of the population was illiterate and religious education as we know it was non-existent, people learned their Bible stories and the stories of the saints by studying the windows. Since labeling would have been useless, artists employed certain symbols in stained glass and statuary that identified the saint or the biblical event. That special symbolic language of art is now lost on most of us, since we have become dependent on words.
All this digging around in the past brings me to one final thought about the windows. Nobody knows for sure the day on which Christ was born. However, there was a very old pagan custom of observing the Festival of the Sun around the shortest day of the year (December 21). People pleaded for the sun to return with its light and warmth. December 25 was the first day that an increase in light could be observed. Hence, December 25 became a day of great rejoicing. Early Christians, who believed that our real cause for rejoicing was not the coming of the sun but the coming of the Son of God, established December 25 as the day to celebrate the birth of Christ. That Son will be with us until the end of the world. So, as long as we still have the Son, I think we can do without as much sun for a little while.