While our individual theologies are joyfully different, don't we all see Christ as a caring shepherd? Can you imagine sitting in the sanctuary of Union Avenue Christian Church and not seeing this magnificent depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd standing among his flock and looking out over our Chancel Choir? It's very difficult to imagine our chancel without the comforting words of Psalm 23 ever-present and the dappled shades of blue and red and green and gold spilling out to color our celebration of worship. But for the first 50 years of worship in this magnificent space, there was no blue and red and green and gold Good Shepherd to welcome us home.
It was 61 years ago, during the first major renovation of our sanctuary, that the seven-panel window was installed in the chancel. The window was a gift of Mrs. Mellcene Thurman Smith in memory of her mother. Unfortunately, Mrs. Smith did not live to see the window completed or approve its design, but we are the beneficiaries of her faithful generosity. As such, it is essential that we remain mindful of its ongoing care.
Mr. Stephen Frei, president of Emil Frei & Associates, recently inspected the entirety of the window (consisting of 89 different sections), assessing the condition of the glass, light box, and structure. In his summary of the inspection he reports: “There are about 15 sections that have various levels of bulges, ranging from significant down to just starting. Only four to five sections have serious or extensive bulging. Another ten sections are in the beginning stages of varying degrees of compromise. In addition, there are a few section divider locations where some leads are starting to open up, but these are not to the extent as to become a serious threat to the window anytime soon.”
He concludes by noting: “Though the above paragraph may sound intimidating, this massive window is actually in very good shape.”
With the approval of the Official Board of Union Avenue, craftsmen from Emil Frei removed four sections of the window for repairs in the Emil Frei studios in Kirkwood. These sections were removed in early June and were returned to the window in the week before Homecoming Sunday. As stewards of this generous and magnificent gift to the congregation, we are presently working with Mr. Frei to develop a plan to make additional necessary and precautionary repairs to the window.
As we approach All Saints Day (Thursday, November 1), it’s particularly fitting to recognize the saints represented in the window. Spaced throughout the window are the shields of the 12 Apostles, each with its symbolic message. They preserve the traditions that have been handed down to us regarding the life, ministry, and death of these Apostles of our faith. Beginning in the upper left, the symbol on the shield is the crossed keys that refer to St. Peter’s confession and Jesus’ words to him, “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Often, Peter’s shield or symbol includes an inverted cross, signifying that, at this own request, Peter was crucified head downward, not considering himself worthy to be crucified in the same position as Christ.
The symbol on the shield of St. John (upper right) is a chalice-like vessel with a serpent rising from it, recalling the story of an attempt to kill him by poisoning. Tradition records that the priest of Diana gave him poisoned wine to drink, but he made the sign of the cross over the chalice and the poison escaped in the form of a serpent.
The symbol on the shield of St. Andrew (second row, left) is the “x-shaped” cross that refers to the manner of his crucifixion. Tradition has it that Andrew was crucified on this kind of cross, being tied to it, at his own request, not counting himself worthy to be crucified on the same kind of cross or fastened to it in the same manner as his Lord. It is said that dying slowly, he continued to preach to those about him.
The symbol on the shield of St. Philip (second row, second from left) is a basket of loaves and fishes. The loaves and fishes recall Philip’s remark when Jesus fed the multitude: “How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?”
The symbol on the shield of St. James the Less (second row, second from right) shows the fuller’s club or bat (used in the dying of cloth), which was the instrument of his martyrdom.
The symbol on the shield of St. Matthias (second row, right) is the carpenter’s square. Matthias was chosen by lot to succeed Judas Iscariot. Tradition holds that he was a builder of churches.
The symbol on the shield of St. Jude (bottom, left) is a trefoil cross or budded cross. Jude was referred to as Thaddaeus, Lebbaeus, or Judas Lebbaeus. Tradition has it that he traveled with Simon as a missionary in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
St. Bartholomew (bottom, second from left and removed in the picture above) is depicted by a shield showing two flaying knives. Tradition tells us that Bartholomew traveled east as far as India. While preaching in Armenia he was seized by “the heathens,” flayed alive, and then crucified.
The symbol on the shield of St. James the Great (bottom, third from left and largely hidden by the carving of the Last Supper) shows the pilgrim’s hat and staff, symbolic of his pilgrimage to Spain and Compostella, which became a very famous goal of pilgrimages in the Middle Ages.
St. Matthew (bottom, third from right and largely hidden by the carving of the Last Supper) is depicted by a shield showing the halbert or battle axe, instrument of Matthew’s martyrdom, which is said to have taken place in Ethiopia where he was crucified on a Tau cross and decapitated with a battle axe.
The symbol on the shield of St. Thomas (bottom, second from right) shows spears or lances to indicate that Thomas was run through with spears. Some writers suggest that Thomas built a church in India. The spear or lance refers to his supposed martyrdom at the hand of King Midsai for converting Queen Tertia, the king’s wife, to Christianity.
The symbol on the shield of St. Simon (bottom, right) is a saw. After Christ’s resurrection, tradition holds that St. Simon and St. Jude preached the gospel throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. According to legend, St. Simon was put to death by being sawed into pieces.
These symbols are not sacred in and of themselves, but they help us to understand the story of our faith in Jesus the Christ. Union Avenue long ago recognized its building and grounds and facilities to facilitate ministry not just for our own congregation but for and among and with our local community. We have become a locus for God’s transformational love in St. Louis through the ministries we house and host. With our support of Union Avenue’s budget, 733 Union Boulevard becomes a house of prayer for all people.