by Alan Harrison SJ
Many visitors to St Beuno’s know the ancient church at Llanrhaeadr near Denbigh adjacent to the Anvil Pottery. It is a splendid 15th century building on the site of a 6th century church with an associated holy well which has been a place of pilgrimage down the ages. Its greatest glory however is a stained glass window dating from 1533 just prior to the Reformation, a window that depicts the tree of Jesse and which I find profoundly poignant and inspiring.
It is a large window which on bright days floods the church with gloriously coloured light but if one looks closely it is clear that the window is significantly damaged. Time and weather have demanded their toll, over the centuries it has been damaged and repaired as best as possible. It was taken down in hard times and buried in a forest for years, hidden for safety from Puritan iconoclasts. Yet as an image of devotional art it utterly transcends its brokenness. Indeed it is it seems to me a more splendid window precisely because it has suffered brokenness, damage and neglect.
In its deep blue, scarlet and gold, the window is one of the glories of church art in this island. It depicts the dream of Jesse, father of King David, ancestor of Jesus, in which the whole genealogy of Christ is depicted in the form of a spreading tree. We see the roots in the sleeping figure of Jesse, and growing from them, held in many branches the kings, and prophets who were ancestors of, and who looked forward to Jesus. Above all at the centre of the window we see an image of the incarnation when our God became human so that humanity might share the life of God. There at that centre we see Our Lady in radiance holding the child Jesus, a direct descendent of David – but descended too, as the tree of Jesse (and the gospel of Matthew), makes clear, from both the holy and the weak and sinful – from David the King but also the adulterer, from Rahab the prostitute but also the courageous believer. The roots of Christ’s human life were as our own – full of shadows and dark places and brokenness as well as rich in human courage, goodness and love.
I have often stood in front of that window, it makes a splendid and moving scene, for we too each have an image that we like to portray, an image of ourselves. Like the window we too are best seen in the most favourable light, that is what we so often desire. Yet the truth is that, like the window we have been broken by time and circumstance, we have had things that have shattered us and there are shadows in our background. Yet the lesson of the incarnation is that brokenness can be transcended, indeed that shattering is often necessary for God’s mercy and glory to be revealed in us, and that I think is one of the lessons we learn as we grow in God’s love – that Christ’s coming is to heal, to restore, to encourage, to renew, and that his coming is not once and for all but a continuous experience in which we who love God come to an ever deeper awareness of God’s presence in our midst and in our hearts.
We are called time and again to discover God not only in our own brokenness but in the weakness, the suffering of others, in those who are marginalised and defeated by our culture of greed and comfort, those who are lost in addictions or loneliness, or shattered in heart and mind. If can find God in our own brokenness, if we can love what God loves in us we will encounter him powerfully as we move out, perhaps at times painfully, in love towards the brokenness and the shattered lives of others.
That for me is the lesson of this fine window and its symbolic tree in whose protecting branches we are all held and whose deep roots nourish our lives.