Through Whom the Light Shines
Praying with the Windows of All Saints’ Episcopal Church San Francisco
by Larry Holben[NOTE TO THE READER: The text of this document is taken from a pamphlet designed to be used in the church building itself. The reader will find some of the text below more meaningful when understood from that perspective.]
The saints of the church have sometimes been described as those through whom the light of God’s love shines with particular brilliance and clarity.
Such a characterization is apt for reflection upon the life and witness of those saints memorialized in the windows of All Saints’ Church. Like the “great cloud of witnesses” which the Epistle to the Hebrews pictures as surrounding Christians in their life and service, the images in glass of these men and women surround the people of All Saints’ when we gather, diffusing the light by which we pray and worship together. Some of these saints have stories rich with meaning and historical detail. Of others we know little but fragmentary legend. It is no longer possible to reconstruct precisely why a particular donor chose this or that subject for a given window, but taken together the lives represented here provide diverse and significant threads in that much larger tapestry which is the whole company of the faithful who have gone before us.
This booklet is designed not merely to provide information, but to be used in a meditative, prayerful private “walking” of the windows, much as one walks the traditional Stations of the Cross. Many of the prayers included are adapted from collects in the Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts & Fasts.
To walk the windows, come forward to the crossing (the outer edge of the raised platform of the sanctuary) and face the altar. Look to your right. The first window, just outside the curtained door of the ambulatory, is that of St. Elmo. This is where you will begin, continuing clockwise around the nave until you reach the last window just outside the Lady Chapel, that of the Annunciation.
St. Elmo, Bishop & Martyr
(Feast Day June 2nd)
There exists little or nothing in the way of documented historical fact regarding this once widely venerated saint. Most sources agree that he was a bishop of the church martyred at some point during the last great Roman persecution, that of Diocletian, which began in 303 and continued sporadically until 312.
The most common legend is that Elmo (or, more properly, Erasmus, his full name) was a native of Syria who, hounded from his original diocese by Imperial agents, eventually settled in Formiae in the Campagna (the broad plain surrounding the city of Rome). Whether or not he then became bishop of Formiae is disputed, but eventually he is said to have been martyred there-in later accounts, by having his intestines wound out of his body on a windlass, a barrel-shaped hoisting device used in seafaring and shipping.
Whether because of the supposed instrument of his martyrdom or due to some other now lost association with maritime endeavors, Elmo became the patron saint of sailors. He was especially venerated by Neapolitan seafarers, giving his name to “St. Elmo’s Fire,” an electrical discharge sometimes observed emanating from the mast-heads and yard-arms of ships and interpreted by pious seamen as a sign of the saint’s protection. This natural phenomenon is depicted in the background of the window, although in actuality it is a pale blue in color, not red as portrayed here.
In traditional Western European devotion, St. Elmo was one of the “Fourteen Holy Helpers,” a group of saints (which included St. Christopher) often invoked for particularly hazardous activities. Whatever the facts of his life, or even if he is to all intents and purposes a legendary figure, St. Elmo reminds us of God’s special concern for those in dangerous occupations and, in particular, “those in peril on the sea.”Gracious God, loving guardian of all your children: Remember those whose work puts them in particular danger, and especially those who labor and journey upon or beneath the waters. Protect them from harm and bring them and all of us in the end to that safe harbor which is the Eternal Reign of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. AMEN
St. Michael the Archangel
(Feast Day, September 29th)
References to angels appear with relative frequency in both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. These powerful non-corporeal agents of God’s purpose, whose creation lies outside that of our own cosmos, are understood to serve upon occasion as divine messengers-“messenger” being the literal meaning of the Greek word angelos. Only four of them, however, are given specific names in the Bible.
Chief among these mysterious beings is Michael, depicted in the Apocalypse of St. John as the captain of the heavenly hosts and honored from earliest Christian times as “defender of the defenseless.” Indeed, veneration of the Archangel Michael even pre-dates Christianity, since he is known to have been revered by many Jews in the last centuries before the Common Era as well.
While in the Western church Michael’s bellicose qualities have traditionally been the primary focus, with the result that he has been claimed in particular as a patron of soldiers, in the East he has always been looked upon as special guardian of the sick. It is in this aspect that Michael has taken on renewed significance for contemporary Christians facing the holocaust of AIDS and HIV disease.
Any visual representation of an angelic being is best understood in term of poetic metaphor. In Christian art, angels are usually portrayed in human form, with wings to signify their swiftness and freedom from the limitations of three-dimensional space, swords to indicate their power, and brilliant raiment to symbolize their ability to enlighten. As a warrior, Michael is traditionally depicted in armor as well, as he is here.
All Saints’ also maintains a shrine to St. Michael in the parish garden. Designed and built by local artist and parish member Louise Lieber, the shrine is dedicated to the memories of all members and friends of the parish who have died of AIDS.Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals: Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven; so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. AMEN.
(Feast Day, March 19th)
Relatively little is known about St. Joseph, husband of the Virgin Mary and adoptive father of Jesus, the only presumably reliable information being contained in the infancy and youth narratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
At least distantly related to the Hebrew royal family (“of the house and lineage David”), Joseph of Nazareth was a “carpenter,” a word which many scholars now believe refers more to someone in general building and construction than to a cabinetmaker or artisan in wood. Although later legendary materials depict him as an elderly widower with children from a former marriage, there is no basis for this portrayal in the Scriptural accounts. What is striking in the gospels’ picture of Joseph is his very human distress at the discovery that his betrothed is with child by someone else and, at the same time, his compassionate refusal to subject her to the full legal penalty of her betrayal, instead resolving to “put her away quietly.”
This extraordinarily generous intention was to change, however, when an angelic messenger informed Joseph of the miraculous nature of Mary’s pregnancy. From that point on, he took her into his home as his wife and later raised the boy Jesus as his own, teaching him his trade. Joseph last appears in the Scriptures in Luke’s account of the twelve year old Jesus being separated from his parents on a trip to Jerusalem for a religious festival. It would appear that Joseph had died by the time of the crucifixion, since John’s gospel depicts Jesus entrusting his mother to the care of that “Beloved Disciple” usually understood to be John himself
St. Joseph has long been venerated as patron not only of fathers but of working men and women, in particular those who work with their hands. He is commonly, as in this window, shown holding the infant Jesus in one ann and a blooming lily in the other, the lily being drawn from a fanciful post-Biblical account of an appropriate spouse for Mary being selected through the agency of a miraculously blooming staff.O God, who from the family of your servant David raised up Joseph to be the guardian of your incarnate Son and the husband of his virgin mother: Give us grace to imitate Joseph in his uprightness of life and his obedience to your will; we ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord, who was not ashamed to call a man who worked with his hands his earthly father. AMEN.
St. David of Wales
(Feast Day, March 1st)
We lack a reliable biography of St. David (or Dewi, his name in Welch), who was an influential abbot-bishop, and eventually Primate, of the church in 61h century Wales. The first account of his life is a polemical work defending the independence of the Welch bishops from the authority of the English hierarchy, and this document was not written until nearly 500 years after Dewi’s death. We do know St. David was renowned for his own and his communities’ extreme asceticism, which was based on the strict model of the Egyptian desert monks-indeed, most scholars believe David’s traditional nickname “the Waterman” refers to the fact that he and the brothers under his care were teetotalers, unlike most monks at the time.
There may be elements of truth in the rest of St. David’s legend: that he was the son of local chieftain and a Christian mother, that he founded a dozen monasteries, that he moved the Primate’s seat to Menevia (now, Ty-Dewi, “House David”), where it remains to this day, that he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, that he was so eloquent in his arguments against heresy at a church synod that he was acclaimed Primate against his will.
Whatever the historical accuracy of these and other tales, St. David’s story reminds us that, at a time when pagan Angles, Saxons and Jutes had overrun the rest of Britain, virtually extinguishing Christianity, the church remained vigorous in Wales. David’s acknowledged character as a firm but compassionate pastor, a courageous bishop, an effective teacher and a man of profound personal spirituality is ultimately more significant than the pious fabrications that embroider his memory.
St. David is the patron saint of Wales. The patrons of Ireland (St. Patrick) and Scotland (St. Andrew) are also represented in the windows of All Saints’ Church. Intriguingly, St. George, patron of England, is not.Almighty God, you called your servant David to be a faithful and wise minister of your mysteries for the people of Wales: Mercifully grant that, following his purity of life and zeal for the gospel, we may with him reflect the character of Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we make this and all our prayer. AMEN.
St. Stephen, Deacon & Martyr
(Feast Day, December 26th)
Everything we know of St. Stephen is found in the sixth and seventh chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. He was a Greek speaking Jew who had joined the nascent Christian community in Jerusalem within a year or two of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts refers to his being “full of faith,” and ranks him first in its list of seven deacons appointed by the apostles to see to the distribution of food to Greek-speaking widows in the Jerusalem church. Stephen was also a fervent preacher and, according to Acts, performed “great wonders and miracles” as well. This combination of zealous proselytizing and spiritual power brought him to the attention of the religious authorities, who had him arrested and brought before the Council on a charge of blasphemy, a capital offense.
In a lengthy sermon notable for its forthrightness, if not its tact, Stephen exhaustively and rather negatively summarizes Jewish history, closing with a scathing denunciation of his judges themselves: they are proud, stubborn men who-like their fathers before them-resist the Holy Spirit and persecute God’s prophets. Furthermore, they bear personal responsibility for murdering God’s Messiah, Jesus, in this very city.
At this point in the narrative, Stephen is caught up in a vision in which he sees the sky part to reveal the Son of Man in triumph at God’s right hand. Such a claim was blasphemous on its face under the Law; therefore, the charges against him having been proved by his own mouth, Stephen is taken outside the city walls and stoned to death. A young man named Saul (later to become Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles) is noted as being present in the crowd, guarding the cloaks of the executioners.
Acts’ description of Stephen’s martyrdom is clearly shaped so as to bring out its parallels to the passion of his Lord, particularly in a dying prayer that his murderers not be held responsible for his death. This account, in turn, became a model for subsequent martyrologies: courageous witness to the truth, steadfast faith in Jesus even in extremis, beatific vision and, finally, a peaceful falling asleep in the Lord. The palm branch Stephen holds in our window-along with stones, the instruments of his execution-is an ancient symbol for a martyr and is drawn from the description of a great Company of Christian martyrs in heaven bearing palms which appears in the seventh chapter of St. John’s Apocalypse.We give you thanks, 0 Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr, Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors as did your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. AMEN.
St. Cecilia, Virgin & Martyr
(Feast Day, November 22)
At some point in the early centuries of the Christian church in Rome, a woman named Cecilia founded a church (quite possibly in her home, as was common at the time) in the Trastevere quarter of the city. After her death, she was buried in a place of honor in the cemetery of St. Callistus on the Appian Way. Nothing else is known of her.
By the year 545, however, a pious romance describing Cecilia’s purported martyrdom was in wide circulation. Reflecting the sex-phobic attitudes that marked Christian piety at this point in its history, Cecilia’s “Passion” describes how the young Christian noblewoman was given in marriage by her patrician family to one Valerian, a pagan. On their wedding night, so the tale went, Cecilia informed her hapless husband that she had consecrated herself to lifelong virginity for Christ. In what would seem a rather remarkable act of magnanimity, Valerian not only agreed to respect his wife’s vow, but accepted her faith himself and was baptized.
Eventually Valerian’s brother Tiburtius also converted and, still later, the two brothers, along with another Christian, Maximus, were martyred for their faith. Following the death of her husband, Cecilia herself was brought to trial and-having refused to bum incense at the altar of Rome’s gods-was sentenced to death. After an attempt to suffocate her in her bath failed, a soldier was sent to behead the valiant young woman. He made a botch of the execution, striking three blows and then leaving Cecilia to linger for three days before dying. Her house was then turned into a church.
Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus are actual historical persons, martyrs buried in a Roman cemetery. Their purported connection with the lady foundress of the church in Trastevere, however, is best understood as an edifying fabrication. Nonetheless, from the 6th century onwards, St. Cecilia, Virgin & Martyr, was widely venerated in the West. Her popular identification as the patroness of music is based on a statement in her “Passion” that she sang to God “in her heart while the pagan musicians were playing at her wedding.O God, source of all beauty, giver of the gift of song: Bless all those who, in this place and to your gIory, make music to the praise of your name. We ask this through your Son Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made. AMEN.
(Feast Day, July 29th)
Martha of Bethany, her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus were not only followers ofJesus, they were among his most intimate friends. It was to their home outside Jerusalem that he retreated for rest and refreshment when the stresses of his ministry grew overwhelming. When Lazarus died, Jesus’ grief at his tomb was so great that bystanders commented upon it as evidence of the depth of love between them. The public sensation created by Jesus then raising Lazarus from the dead is cited by John’s Gospel as a major factor in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.
Perhaps the most revealing portrait of Martha appears in Luke 10, where she is depicted as busying herself with culturally defined “woman’s work”-preparing a meal and waiting on her male guests-while her sister Mary presumes the prerogatives of a man (as her society understood them), sitting at Jesus’ feet with the disciples and listening to his teaching. Vexed, Martha finally asks Jesus to intervene and tell Mary to help her. Instead, Jesus commends Mary for choosing the “better thing” which can never be taken away from her.
Medieval piety took Martha as a symbol of the “active life” of Christian service and Mary as a figure of the “contemplative life” of prayer and meditation on the mysteries of God. Contemporary scholars are more struck by the radical rejection of conventional sex roles implicit in Jesus’ response to Martha: as women, Mary and Martha are not required to limit or define themselves by a subordinate function of service to the needs of men; they have an equal place with Jesus’ male followers in the new community of faith.
Later, at the time of her brother’s death, Martha’s straightforward confession of faith in Jesus-“I believe that you are the Messiah” (John 11)-even before Lazarus is brought back to life, singles her out as one of the few to understand the true significance ofJesus’ life and· ministry prior to the resurrection.O God, your Son Jesus Christ enjoyed rest and refreshment in the home of Martha of Bethany: Give us the will to love you, open our hearts to hear you and strengthen our hands to serve you in others for his sake; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. AMEN.
St. Andrew, Apostle
(Feast Day, November 30th)
One of “The Twelve” specially chosen by Jesus, Andrew is mentioned several times in the gospels. Like his more prominent brother, Simon Peter, he was a fisherman by occupation. That he was also a spiritual “seeker” would seem clear from the fact that, before he met Jesus, Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist. After witnessing the Lord’s baptism and being told by John “Behold the Lamb of God,” Andrew followed Jesus home and stayed with him, later searching out his brother Simon and bringing him back to meet the new Teacher.
Throughout the gospels, Andrew remains in the shadow of his brother, although it was he who brought the young boy with five loaves and a few small fish to Jesus in the story of the miraculous feeding of the 5000.
Later accounts of Andrew’s life after the resurrection are at best unreliable. Eusebius, the first church historian, repeats a story that he went as a missionary to Scythia (Iran and neighboring regions) and it is on this basis that the Anglican communion honors Andrew as a special intercessor for missions. Tradition holds that he died at the hands of an angry mob of pagans, although the notion that he was crucified on an X-shaped cross (which instrument of martyrdom he holds in our window) first appears in the later middle ages.
St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland. By the very anonymity of so much of his life, he reminds us that great work in theAlmighty God, who gave such grace to your apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give us, who are called by your holy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who lives and reigns with you forever. AMEN.
St. Patrick, Missionary & Bishop
(Feast Day, March 17th)
This patron saint of Ireland was born in the latter decades of the 4th century to a Christian family in northwest Britain. His grandfather had been a priest and his father was both a deacon and a highly placed official in the Roman colonial government. When he was sixteen, Patrick was kidnapped by pagan Irish slave traders and held in bondage as a shepherd in Ireland until he managed to escape back to Britain at age twenty-one. After being trained for holy orders and ordained (in France, according to tradition), Patrick had a startling dream in which God called him to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary. He did so in approximately 432.
Although there had been scattered Christians in Ireland prior to Patrick’s arrival, it was he who nearly single-handedly evangelized the country and set up an organized church. He overcame the powerful opposition of the Druidic priesthood through a combination of inspired preaching, acts of miraculous power, and an unembarrassed willingness to incorporate usable aspects of the old paganism into the new faith: he built churches on pre-Christian sacred sites, carved crosses on Druidic pillars; and placed the springs associated with spirits in local folklore under the patronage of Christian saints. By the time he died in 461 or thereabouts, the Christian faith was firmly established throughout Ireland, as was the monastic life which was to flower several centuries later.
The much-loved hymn, “The Breastplate” (“I bind onto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity …”), while traditionally ascribed to Patrick, is probably better understood as a later expression of his faith and zeal. His symbols are the shamrock and snakes-the latter based upon a legend that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, a story that probably had its genesis in his having driven paganism, symbolized by the serpent of the Garden of Eden, out of the Emerald Isle.
Patrick’s profoundly Christian character is revealed in these words from his own writings: “I, Patrick, a sinner, am the most ignorant and of least account among the faithful, despised by many… I owe it to God’s grace that so many people should through me be born again to Him.”Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle to the Irish people: Grant us so to walk in your light that we may come, with him and all your saints, to the light of everlasting life; through Christ who is his Lord and Ours. AMEN.
St. Francis of Assisi
(Feast Day, October 4th)
Quite possibly the most beloved of all the saints, revered by Christians and non-Christians alike, St. Francis is remembered for his poverty, simplicity, love for all of creation, and deep experience of JOY·
Born in about 1181 in the small town of Assisi, near Florence, Francesco Bernardone was the son of a wealthy dealer in fine fabrics. In his youth he led what he later came to consider a frivolous, ungrounded life, but experiences of illness and warfare matured him. One day, while he was praying in the dilapidated church of San Damiano, the painted crucifix over the altar seemed to speak to him: “Francis, repair my falling house.” Although later scholars have tended to understand this divine summons in terms of a call to restore apostolic simplicity to a worldly,venial church (which Francis was, in fact, to do), the young man took the words of his vision quite literally, absconding with goods from his father’s warehouse and selling them to raise the money he needed to begin repairing San Damiano.
Francis’ father was not amused and disinherited him. Francis then-in a dramatic gesture in the public square of Assisi-stripped himself naked and set off penniless to “wed Lady Poverty.” Within three years, eleven like-minded young men had joined him, and in 1210 Pope Innocent III authorized them to become a religious community, the “Friars Minor,” pledged to absolute poverty, begging for their daily bread and preaching renewed faith and gospel simplicity throughout central Italy.
The Franciscans grew rapidly. In 1212, with St. Clare, a young noblewoman of Assisi, Francis founded a complementary order for women later known as the “Poor Clares” because they, like the brothers, lived entirely on alms, holding no personal or community property. As the Franciscan vision spread throughout Europe, Francis himself accompanied crusaders to Egypt-not to conquer, but to seek dialogue with the Muslim Sultan, whom he did in fact meet, defending himself afterwards with the observation that “God is everywhere.”
Francis’ profound perception of the sacramentality of all life led him upon one occasion to preach on the joy of God’s love to a flock of birds (the scene pictured in our window). In 1224, while praying in the mountains, he underwent a mystical experience of God’s presence so powerful that it left him marked for the remainder of his life with the stigmata (spontaneous wounds similar to those of Christ on the cross).
The last years of St. Francis’ life were not easy, since the order he had begun became formalized and less rigorous under successive leadership. Francis died in 1226 and was canonized two years later. His much-mended habit and tattered sandals can still be viewed in the crypt of his church in Assisi.St. Francis left little in the way of writings, but his “Canticle of the Sun,” composed for use by Clare’s community of sisters, is shot through with his passionate and joyful sense of the immanence of the transcendent God in all things, great and small. It begins: Most High, omnipotent, good Lord, To thee be ceaseless praise outpoured, And blessing without measure. Let creatures all give thanks to thee And serve in great humility.
The city of San Francisco is named for St. Francis. In 1979, Pope John Paul II designated him the patron of ecologists.Most High, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce the distracting vanities of this world so that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may find our delight in that divine love which permeates all your creation and so know true joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, whose humility and poverty St. Francis took as the model for his own life, becoming thereby a model for us who come after him. AMEN.
The Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary
(Feast Day, March 25th)
In this, one of the oldest of the windows of All Saints’, the fundamental turning point of human history is depicted: a young Jewish woman, Mary, is visited by an angel bringing astounding news: she is to bear a son in whom the eternal Word of God will be incarnated in human flesh. God will not only be “with us” but, in a profound mystery reaching beyond all our human understanding, God will become “one of us.”
By her response, Mary herself becomes the model for all Christian discipleship and in the truest sense the mother of the church: “Be it done onto me according to your word.” Both for the great privilege given her and her deeply trusting acceptance of God’s will without thought of its cost to her personally, generations of Christians have called Mary “blessed among women.”
Theotokos – meaning “the God-bearer,” a term originally coined by the 4th century bishop of Jerusalem St. Cyril-is a title which has been applied to Mary since it was affirmed by the General Council of Ephesus in 451 and remains her primary designation among the Orthodox. Similarly, in particular in the West, Mary has often been called the “Mother of God.” Both these appellations speak to the particular dignity of Mary in human history, to be sure, but they call our attention even more to the unique character of her son, Jesus the Christ.
The prayer of the Angelus, with which we begin weekday masses at All Saints’, is an elaboration upon the angelic greeting to Mary at the Annunciation:Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women And blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, Pray for us, sinners, Now and at the hour of our death. Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. AMEN.