[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and popular literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
In a church in the suburbs of Belfast, there is a stained-glass window which takes its title and its subject matter from a line in one of this week’s lectionary readings (from chapter 22 of the Book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse of John): “The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations”. At the time of its installation (1920, one year before the partition of Ireland into North and South), this window – along with other works by the artist Wilhelmina Geddes – caused a stir by its Arts-and-Crafts Movement modernism. “Her glass is quite unlike that of most other stained glass workers”, according to the Irish Times; “the religion which it reflects is the religion of power and fighting, not the religion of peace and restfulness”.1
I saw this window on a brief trip to Belfast last October. (As I live and work in London, my journey was a short one.) I am not an art critic, but I guess it was the break with settled traditions of stained-glass made by Geddes and like-minded artists which must have shocked her contemporaries, and earned the “religion of fighting” assessment. Her angels are certainly tall and stern. But the vision is by no means a violent one. Rather (to borrow the words of Nicola Bowe, author of a forthcoming biography of Geddes), The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations “positively sings in a patchwork forest of greens through which throng small meditating souls in bright pink, ruby, blue and gold, each piece of glass chosen and painted with the greatest thought and care”.2 I am no theologian either – I’m an archivist – but it’s easy to recognise, in both the window and the Scripture reading that inspired it, the Christian eschatological hope here imagined as a future paradise in which a Tree of Life planted by God has put pay to the strife and conflict which was ushered in by the primordial Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Later in my trip, I joined an organised tour of Belfast City Hall, which dominates the centre of the city. As one of a party of tourists,I was invited to enter its debating chamber (the Council was out of session) and to sit in Council members’ seats. At the time, none of us had any inkling of the storm that was about to break over the Council’s December decision to restrict the flying of the British flag over City Hall to a small number of designated days each year. This move – which, like many in today’s Northern Ireland, was the result of a compromise across the sectarian divide – sparked a string of street protests, night riots and confrontations with police on the part of a disaffected minority. This dispute spilled over into 2013 and at the time of writing (January) is still unresolved. At one level, this can be understood as a battle by proxy over which flag should fly over Northern Ireland, and a depressing reassertion of the old Belfast of the Troubles era over against the political dispensation inaugurated by the 1997 Good Friday Agreement. Yet at another level, it may be seen as a local product of the kind of gang loyalties which find expression in many other cities across Europe and North America.
In its insistent note of hope for something better, The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations speaks directly to realities such as these. The window was commissioned as a memorial in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when hopes such as these ran high in Ireland as they did elsewhere, only to be dashed by the events of subsequent decades. At a time and place at which one’s social identity was constrained by one’s sectarian leanings,Wilhelmina Geddes produced stained-glass windows of great beauty for Catholic and Protestant churches alike – a fragile beauty, perhaps (one made of glass, after all), and one which her contemporaries certainly found challenging, but an enduring beauty nonetheless. In so doing, she joined the ranks of the heralds of the kingdom of God.
Of course, eschatological expectation has not always motivated Christians to work toward social reconciliation and renewal; just as often, it seems, it has induced political paralysis, or fuelled disturbing fantasies of retributive violence. The ‘Irish question’ is a case in point: historically, matters have appeared in one light from the perspective of London; in another from the perspective of Dublin, let alone (say) Philadelphia or Chicago; and with little by way of optimism from any quarter. Yet John reminds us that the maintenance of hope is the more authentically Scriptural stance, even in the face of setback and disappointment (of which, we may safely assume, his original audience had more than their fair share). Christians of whatever stripe may continue to believe in, pray for and work in partnership toward the ‘new’ Belfast because they believe in, pray for and work in partnership toward ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. (In fact, thousands attended peace rallies in the city in the wake of the recent unrest.) And if for the new Belfast, then for a new Philadelphia and a new Chicago – in the face of their discrete challenges – as well.
Colin Gale is a London-based archivist, author and blogger.
1 Irish Times, 14 July 1923, quoted in Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘A Window with Punch’, Apollo Magazine (September 2008), pp.74-79.
2 Nicola Gordon Bowe, ‘Wilhelmina Geddes’, Irish Arts Review, 1984, p. 58. ————-