We Appear for a Little While
A magnificent fresco of Christ buckled and crashed to the floor before my eyes. This 35-foot tall painting by Ben Long had filled the front wall of the sanctuary of St. Peter's Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now, a huge center portion lay on the floor, plaster dust billowing into a cloud around it.
It was Wednesday, February 20, 2002 at 11:14 in the morning. My friend Dorothy and I had been sitting about ten rows from the front, studying this picture. We marveled at its beauty and significance, speaking in hushed tones in order not to disturb a man a few pews back, the only other person in the sanctuary. We had no idea that the details of this work of art would soon exist only in our memories.
In the left scene, Jesus knelt on a rock outcropping in the garden of Gethsemane, and prayed under a stormy sky. A wispy, but bright, tongue of fire crowned his head. Lower down the hill, in dark huddles here and there, the disciples slept from fatigue and sorrow. In the distance, a faint hint of soldiers march down the road on the left and a lone, crooked tree stands bravely opposite.
On the right portion of the triptych (a painting with three sections) we see the bright walls of a home, steps to the roof or upper room and disciples assembling with matching tongues of fire. A breach in the wall above reveals the sky and the top of a tree, with a short, red curtain hanging over a rope, flapping in the breeze. Below, in the background others enter an open door to the home. One disciple is prominent on each side of the triptych; I assume it is Peter. He sleeps on the left and stands on the right, in the pose of a preacher, facing Christ.
Christ is at the center of the fresco, on high, girded by a white loincloth, arms extended out and slightly downward. Behind him is a vertical light-filled rectangle. An open rock tomb behind his head, sleeping soldiers at his feet, and the rest of the red curtain complete this section. To me, this one image embodies Christ crucified, exiting the tomb, and ascending to heaven.
Dorothy and I had just risen and started forward, intending to get a closer look, when I heard a sound like the rush of rain on the roof. I was saddened, thinking it would curtail our visit to uptown Charlotte. It was not rain, but only a prelude to what happened next.
The whole center portion of the fresco came crashing straight down onto the floor. Aghast, my first silly thought was, did I do something to make it fall? We turned to the man in the back, looking helplessly for an explanation.
What did it mean? That question has haunted me these last ten days. Christ vanished before my sight as he did before the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In their sorrow over his death, they did not recognize him, resurrected, in the stranger that accompanied them on their journey. It was only when he ate with them and broke the bread that they saw him for who he was. Did they feel the disappointment I felt as he vanished? That is the only mention in the Bible of Jesus disappearing.
But there are many accounts of his appearing. He appeared first to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection, then to Peter, to the twelve disciples, to more than five hundred believers at the same time, to James, and then to all the apostles, and lastly to Paul. (I Corinthians 15:5-8). As Jesus surprised Mary at the tomb, He still surprises me today by showing up in unexpected places. Not in his flesh do I see him, but in the flesh of friends who hug me when I am sad or hurting. He appears to me when funds are low and an unforeseen check comes in the mail. He shows up in my husband who makes me tea in the morning.
I could not help but wonder about idols. Was this painting somehow an idol? Is Jesus an iconoclast, one opposed to the religious use of images and advocating their destruction? The Jewish faith prohibited worship of idols. Idols receive worship that rightfully belongs to God alone. Certainly, as I read the New Testament I see Jesus refusing adulation from pharisaical “groupies” elated at bread, fish and healing miracles. He didn’t come to be eye- and ear-candy to the masses. He sought, rather, to feed them with living bread and poured out wine, His own life. A full spiritual belly resulted in radical commitment to His Lordship.
On one occasion when Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus reminded him that they would one day all be destroyed. The glory of buildings that God builds cannot be destroyed, for He is building a heavenly kingdom in people’s hearts.
I believe God has given his creatures a desire to re-create his creation for others to see and turn to Him. Isn’t this focus what counts for Jesus? Malcolm Muggeridge wrote a book on the life of Mother Teresa. He called it Something Beautiful for God; her life was truly a living masterpiece. Works of art like Ben Long’s fresco keep reminding me of the Master who, for the time being, has disappeared. One day though, the book of Revelation tells me, he will appear again and every eye shall see him.
James 4:14 says, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while, then vanishes.” I have appeared on this earth for a short time to accomplish something beautiful for God. What shall I do with these days and months and years given to me? I gaze at that fresco that disappeared and I walk away more determined than ever to repaint it in my face, my speech, and my actions.