The Reredos of Christ Church – Part III of III

Part III of III

by Dickerman Hollister, Jr., MD

You kneel at the communion rail, ready to receive the bread and wine. Raise your eyes, and there behind the priests is a puzzling sight. Painted on decora- tive wood panels behind the high altar are a dozen symbols, some disturbing, all enigmatic. There are everyday objects like a ship, loaves of bread, shells, and even bags of coins. Others are sinister: knives, spears, and even an axe. What are these images do- ing at our altar? What are they telling us?  This is Part III.

10 Money Bags ⋅ Matthew

This is easy. Everyone knows that Matthew (his Greek name; Levi in Hebrew) was the tax collector. This was not a popular activity, and traditionally he would have been considered a collaborator with the occupying Romans. But there are other views (Bissell, p. 33). It may be more accurate to call Matthew a toll collector, working not for the Romans but for Herod Antipas, the Jewish tetrarch under Roman authority.

Regardless, anyone taking money from subsistence farmers in the Galilee would not have been popular. The fact that Jesus chose him as a disciple speaks to the savior’s love for all humanity: the reviled tax collector, the fallen woman, the Samarian outcast, the leper, etc. All are included in the New Kingdom and previous social divisions are irrelevant. Indeed, Jesus says it best: “I have come to call not the righteous but the sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).

Whether or not our Gospel was written by this Matthew is a source of controversy. Origen (c. 230 CE) made the attribution, but it is not clear if he was referring to what we have as the Gospel of Matthew today.  Matthew is said to have preached in Judea, but the details are sparse. He may have reached the Caspian Sea and even Persia. It is not known if or where he was martyred. This may explain why the emblem of money bags was chosen: the only thing we know for sure was his job. Not surprisingly, Matthew is the patron saint of bankers, accountants, custom officers, and of course tax collectors.

11 fish ⋅ Simon The Zealot

Simon the Zealot, a.k.a. Simon the Canaanite: not much is known about him. He seems just part of the supporting cast of the disciples, no speaking role granted. He has the epithets of Zealot or Canaanite to distinguish him from Simon Peter. While the Canaanite moniker is simply geographical, the Zealot attribution is more problematic. It may be just another name for Cana, his home town. Or it may be closer to our meaning of zealous, zealous for keeping the Law of Moses. Or again, it could refer to the Zealot movement, a renegade group of Jews fighting against the Roman occupation of Palestine. Some hold that this Simon was a brother of Jesus, but most believe that the Simon identified in Mark (6:3) was not the same as the disciple.

There are many competing traditions regarding Simon’s apostleship. Reports have him traveling to Egypt, then to Persia, where he joined Jude, to the Caucuses, and even to Britain. He was said to have been sawed in half for his martyrdom, perhaps in Armenia with his traveling companion Jude, but others say he was killed in Britain. Where and when are unknown. His relics lie with Jude in St. Peter’s.

So why the fish emblem? A mystery to me. Perhaps the reredos artist, having enough of instruments of torture by the time of this penultimate panel, needed some happier emblem. Fish would be a good choice, as it complements the ship of Jude, recalling again their travels together by sea. Simon was not specifically called a “fisher of men,” unlike Peter and Andrew, but he certainly preached the Gospel, so that might have been sufficient for this piscine emblem.

12 Axes ⋅ Matthias

Perhaps I spoke too soon: Our artist did have room for one more instrument of death, this particularly frightening pair of axes. These commemorate Matthias, who was chosen to replace Judas Iscariot after Jesus had ascended.

Matthias was no newcomer to the scene. While not originally one of the Twelve, he had been following Jesus from the time of the latter’s baptism by John (Acts 1:21- 22). He was chosen by lot over the other nominee Barsabbas. Casting lots was not considered like today’s lottery, a random result determined only by chance. Casting lots is an old pagan tradition that left the decision to some divine power, which would influence the fall of the tokens or stones. This is made explicitly clear: “Then they prayed and said, ‘Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place’ ” (Acts 1:24-25). Thus Matthias was the only disciple/apostle not to have been chosen by Jesus.

We hear little more of Matthias after that. As with Simon the Zealot, he had a nonspeaking part, mentioned only to return the number of (now) apostles to the magic Twelve. Tradition has him preaching near the Caspian Sea and in what is now modern day Georgia. Details of his martyrdom are conflicting, possibly stoned in Jerusalem and then beheaded.

This completes our tales of the Twelve. but wait; there are two additional items to describe.

The Reredos Cabinet panels

First, just to the right of Jude and to the left of Matthias, are two large panels with their own cryptic designs. They mark the ambries, cabinets in which to store the vessels and linens of the Eucharist. (But only the cabinet on the Epistle side opens; the panel on the Gospel side has never had a cabinet built behind it.) Below the panels are two small shelves on which sacramental vessels may rest (see photo below). These shelves are called “credence tables,” as they serve those who believe (Latin credo) in the divinity of the sacraments.

These two identical panels are both triptychs. The larger, central section of each has painted the initials IHS. These are the first three Greek letters of the name “Jesus”: iota, eta, sigma. Flanking are two smaller sections, again with Greek letters: alpha on the left and omega on the right, each bisected by a cross. Of course you recall the Lord’s words: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13). Jesus is truly God, surrounded on both sides by his faithful apostles.

Paul

But haven’t we missed an apostle? We haven’t talked of Paul. Arguably, Paul was the greatest apostle of them all, spreading the Word to the Gentiles, “…a light to all nations” as prophesied by Isaiah (42:6). Additionally, despite friction with Peter and James, Paul separated the nascent Christianity from Judaism by removing requirements for circumcision, dietary laws, and devotion to Torah. We have at least seven genuine Pauline manuscripts which tell us more about his theology and his evangelism than all the other apostles combined. So why did Paul not make the reredos?

Simply put, Paul was not one of the Twelve. He never met Jesus, at least not in life. In the famous Damascus Road episode, Paul heard and perhaps saw the resurrected savior, but he was not with Jesus during his ministry in either the Galilee or Jerusalem. In contrast, all the others were directly chosen by Jesus before the crucifixion, the only exception being Matthias, who, while not one of the original Twelve, had followed Jesus from the start.

But Paul’s starring role in the Christianity is indeed recognized at Christ Church and in a manner much more prominent than an emblem on the reredos: Paul, bare pate and all, has his own stained glass window in the Chancel, right up there with the Four Evangelists. His portrait is framed in a quatrefoil at the window’s apex. At the base is a banner quotation of one of his most famous lines: “For to me, living is Christ, and dying is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

 

One more point before we end. At the conclusion of the service, the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy has the priest say, “Ite, missa est.” There is controversy (of course!) about what the phrase actually means, but most interpret this as marking the end of the service: The congregation is “dismissed” from the sanctuary. It is from missa that today we call our church service a “Mass.”

But there is more to missa than this. When the Greek New Testament was translated into the vulgate Latin by St. Jerome (c. 400 CE), the verb used for Greek apostello, “send forth,” was in Latin missio (John 20:21): “Jesus said to [the disciples] again, ‘Peace be with you. As my father has sent me, so I send you.’ ” One may then interpret the closing Latin phrase to include the meaning in John’s verse: We are being sent out, as missionaries on missions, to spread God’s Word and fulfill Jesus’ final instruction at The Last Supper: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another” (John 13:34a).

Jesus was the first martyr. By their faith in their savior, the apostles were willing to follow him to their own deaths. We should recall these saints as kneeling below their emblems we share the Eucharist. And when the priest dismisses us at the end of the service, remember the liturgist’s final words, “Let us go forth in peace and love to serve the Lord.”

Dickerman Hollister, Jr., MD May 2019

And this completes our three part series on the stunning and illuminating stories of our Reredos plus Paul commemorated in stained glass.

Many thanks to Dr. Dick Hollister for all his research and gift of words to share these stories and history.

Sources
1. Bissell T, Apostle, Pantheon Books, 2016
2. Brown R, An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale University Press, 1996 3. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. Cruise C, Hendrickson, 1998
4. Fredriksen P, When Christians were Jews, Yale University Press, 2018
5. Griffith H, The Sign Language of Our Faith, Washington Cathedral Press, 1939 6. Hoever H, Lives of the Saints, Catholic Book Publishing Corp, 1999
7. Van Brunt W, The Windows of Christ Church, Christ Episcopal Church, 1989 8. Wikipedia, biographies of each disciple

All Bible quotations from the New Revised Standard Version, Oxford, 2010

Thanks to The Rev. Dr. James Lemler and The Rev. Marek Zabriskie for reviewing this manuscript, and to Joanne Bouknight for photography and layout.