Let's face it, the altar itself is pretty grim. Jesus in his dying agony, the women grieving, the sun hidden by dark clouds, the land barely visible for the darkness ... it's not much to cheer you up. Make you focus, yes. Make you ponder the death of Christ, yes. Make you aware of the seriousness of the faith, yes. But there is little joy in the central pieces of the altar.
That's why it is so important to include the stained glass. On either flank of the altar itself, the stained glass stands in brilliant tension. The resurrection is proclaimed every Sunday morning as the light shines through symbols of victory.
By the way, I remember as a child how intimidating it was to me to attend evening worship services. During Advent or Lent when we had midweek services the whole feel of the sanctuary was much darker, much more grim, and in large part this was because those stained glass windows were dark, and the crucifixion stood alone, without the resurrection. I remember many of those evenings sitting with a sense of grim foreboding.
Sunday mornings the greens and yellows breaking through the windows, the palm branches on the left and the cross and the crown on the right created a counterpoint of joy and promise. Christians always have to hold the cross and the empty tomb in tension. We need both the crucifixion and the resurrection. So often we get too much into the cross and our faith becomes grim and we see ourselves as worthless worms. Other times we get too exclusively into the resurrection and we think this faith is all about our victory and our power, without any reality check about suffering and sin.
I think having the stained glass windows and the crucifixion painting together at the front of the sanctuary all those years placed that both / and deep in my theological understanding. I've never been swept away by those, for example, like Marcus Borg or John Shelby Spong who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus in favor of some spiritualized hope.
The cross was so real, so vivid, so historical to me growing up, and the resurrection was right there with it. It was two sides of the same event, two halves of a whole, two pieces of something that in its entirety saved me and redeemed all creation.