From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 12, Year 1 (Pentecost 9, 2015)
Acts 17:22-23 ~ Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
The altar window at my parish church, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Medina, Ohio, unlike most such windows which depict Jesus Christ in some way, shows this scene of Paul preaching to the Athenians. Paul stands in front of an ancient, columned temple; he and his listeners are dressed in togas. Paul’s audience is youthful and attentive; his elderly visage is earnest; his left arm is raised as he points upward, index finger extended. A banner across the bottom third of the window reads, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”
A dozen or more years ago, when I first entered the church’s worship space and viewed that window, my first thought was, “Why do they have a window of Socrates?” Then realization struck, “Ah, St. Paul!” Still, every time I see that window (which is now several times a week) I cannot help but notice how much the “Paul” depicted there resembles the ancient busts of Socrates; surely the stained glass artisan chose Socrates’ statues as his model.
It was, I think, a poor choice. Most historical reconstructions of Paul’s life and missionary journeys suggest that he was born in 5 CE and made this trip to Athens in 49 CE. The portrait in our window of an elderly bald European with a fringe of silver grey hair and a flowing white beard is clearly not that of a world traveling First Century Palestinian fisherman in his mid-40s. And yet this is the picture of Paul firmly placed in the minds of six generations of Medina Episcopalians (the church and window were built in 1884).
As I read Luke’s description of Paul’s witness in the Book of Acts, this window leaps unbidden to mind. How much, I wonder, of our understanding of Scripture is based on non-scriptural influences like the altar window? (The altar window is a relatively harmless example, although its depiction of Paul could be argued to foster and support a Eurocentric hegemony.) How many layers of information and misinformation filter our appreciation? And to what extent can preachers and religious educators deconstruct those inputs before endangering our listener’s faith? It’s a fine line, nearly a tightrope, that we walk, frequently unawares. The window reminds of me that.