During Advent we like to open the treasure chest of our faith and admire some of the beautiful things inside. Among the many things we view with a deep sense of gratitude are stained glass windows. Three thousand years before Christ, Egyptians had learned how to make colored beads of glass. In the days when Christ walked among us, the Romans knew how to blow glass into vessels and make it into transparent sheets. A millennium later, in 13th century France, stained glass windows had become the crowning glory of massive cathedrals.
Stained glass came to be known as "painting with light," yet these magnificent works of art had the humblest of beginnings as common grains of sand. It was only when fired to intense degrees that silica from the sand fused into the unity of glass. Four stained glass windows survived a fire at Chartres Cathedral in 1194. These four windows still exist. Three rise today as part of the west façade of the cathedral.
We think about the ancient craftsmen who went home to their cottages at night with their hands bleeding from their work. We wonder if they ate plain bread while they talked to their sons and daughters about what it meant to make stained glass windows. How could they comprehend that their work would survive plagues, wars and famines over the next thousand years?
Simple folk who could not read understood the Word of God written large in stained glass. Shepherds in fields, angels, Mary and Joseph fleeing into Egypt; all came to life in the light above them. In the presence of stained glass, hearts opened and thoughts turned to heaven. Like Joseph's coat of many colors, stained glass sent their heartfelt prayers to heaven wrapped in coats of glory.
Most certainly, the presence of Christ doesn't require stained glass windows. They provide a symphony of light to the glory of the Eucharist. Somehow, though, it seems we lost something of value when we stopped using stained glass in so many of our worship spaces. We need to preserve this art because through it we remember what Christ does in our lives. Like the Master Craftsman he is, Christ fits the cut and broken edges of our lives together until his design for us takes shape. When we rise in our places and let the light of Christ pass through us, the common sand we are becomes a magnificent work of art.