By Nissa Basbaum - Priest, British Columbia
Published: May 2007
It had taken a full year for the stained-glass windows to wend their way to their new location, refurbished, encased and backlit. On Christmas Eve, 2005, they lit up the wall behind the altar. The windows were a visible sign of the amalgamation in January of that same year between Church of the Transfiguration and Christ Anglican Church, St. Catharines.
Parishioners from the "old" Transfiguration and the former Christ Church all thought the windows were magnificent and looked incredible in their new location. Some of the parishioners from Christ Church even went so far as to suggest that they looked better at Transfiguration than they had at Christ Church if, for no other reason, than they formerly had been on a side wall and, therefore, were not particularly visible to anyone but the priest who sat in the sanctuary space facing them. Nonetheless, in the early days of the windows' arrival at Transfiguration, there still were one or two concerns expressed about their placement.
These concerns were related to the wood-framed plain glass cross already suspended on the wall behind the altar. When the stained-glass windows representing each of the four biblical evangelists were hung, they were placed surrounding the cross, positioned higher and shining brighter than the cross itself. While not everyone voiced it, there were numerous suggestions that the cross needed to be moved up, and then somehow lit in order that it not be overshadowed by the stained-glass.
As priests in the parish, Robin and I exerted some liturgical authority by suggesting that nothing would be done about the location of the cross until we had had some time to live with the new windows, and accustom ourselves to the change in the liturgical space. That was a little over a year ago.
On a recent Sunday, while Robin was leading the service, I sat in a back pew and focused on the four stained-glass windows and the one plain-glass cross--the four evangelists and Jesus, among them, so to speak--and realized that, at least for me, it had been the right decision not to move the cross higher or, for that matter, to light it. As I gazed at the wall, I came to the conclusion that the present position of the cross and its lack of illumination probably is the strongest statement that we as a church could make about the ministry of Jesus. Even more to the point, I think it's a clear statement of how Jesus, himself, would have understood his own ministry.
The present position of the cross, considerably below the surrounding stained-glass windows, says much about the kind of leadership he would have wanted to convey. At the same time, the desire that many of us have to "move Jesus up" says a great deal about our inability to get our heads around this particular kind of leadership. The way in which the four evangelists "overshadow" Jesus says much about his presence as a servant among them rather than a monarch above them.
Over time, as I have carefully considered the position of the cross on the wall behind the altar, I have come to appreciate the powerful message this picture transmits. It is a picture that paints Jesus in the midst of his disciples, playing an intimate role in the community of his followers. It's certainly true that if the cross were to be moved above the windows or even to the same height as the highest of these, the image this would create would fit better with how the church has historically described Jesus to us. Yet, would it fit quite as well with the image that he, himself, would have hoped to describe?
Unfortunately, when it comes to our understanding of Jesus' ministry, the images held by the leaders of the church and by Jesus have never seemed to be too terribly in harmony with one another. How the church historically came to understand Jesus, and how those of us in the church today have inherited and, quite frankly, lapped up this understanding is, I think, a far cry from Jesus' own understanding of who he desired to be for those who followed him.
Recently, I completed an adult study at Transfiguration. For this study, we used the book The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. At one point in the book, the authors suggest that after the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the practice of Judaism was never again the same. The destruction marked the end of the Jewish priesthood and its accompanying theology of sacrifice. Judaism became a religion with only rabbis and synagogues.
But wait...priesthood and sacrifice didn't end after all. It didn't take long before both these things became the essence of Christianity, and the Christian priest, authorized to sacrifice, once again became the mediator between human beings and God. The church had successfully re-created the very reality that Jesus, during his ministry, had decried. Perhaps even worse than this, Jesus, himself, had become the essence of the church's re-creation, becoming both high priest and sacrifice.
The church's re-invention of the priesthood and the temple in this new way has resulted in our pretty much forgetting who Jesus was for his followers, and who his followers were for him. Where Jesus regards us as "the salt of the earth" and "the light of the world," we instead have been encouraged by the church's leadership to regard ourselves as "miserable sinners." Rather than receiving a message that we are raised up with Jesus, we are put down--way down--like those "stained-glass disciples" who some think should only be hanging below the "plain-glass Jesus."
At the end of one of our study group sessions, one of the participants came to me and said, "Don't you find it interesting that, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, Judaism seemed to become what Jesus had been preaching for, and Christianity seems to have become what Jesus had been preaching against?" Very interesting, indeed...
We continue to be more comfortable having Jesus above us rather than taking the risk of having him right in the middle or the thick of our lives. While Jesus seems to want "to get down and dirty," we would prefer that he not do this. Perhaps the reason for this is that if we allow our leader "to get down and dirty," it would mean, as his followers, we also would have to do the same thing--clearly, a too terrifying possibility!
As I consider the pending election of a new bishop in Niagara, I can't seem to shake the idea that before we can make a decision about who should become the new leader of our diocese, we really need to get a better handle on the leadership of Jesus, himself. What's more, it's by no means just our diocese that needs to be considering this but the wider church, in general. Have our elevated images of this Jewish rabbi made him into something he likely would not wish for himself?
Our extensive efforts to place Jesus above those of us who claim to be his disciples rather than in the midst of us, will forever prevent us from being the servants he intended us to be. If our call is to emulate Jesus, then we truly need to recognize him as a servant rather than a king. At the point that we are able to do this, perhaps those of us who are leaders will begin to look more like leaders of whom God could be proud.