“Where’d Jesus go?” My six-year-old son, Sam, pointed at the bare wall behind the couch, where a framed print of Del Parson’s Christ in Red Robe used to hang.
“I put the picture away to keep it safe,” I explained. “When I was painting the walls I had to take all the pictures down, remember?”
“But that was a long time ago,” Sam reminded me. “You’re done painting. You should put it back up.”
I nodded and smiled uneasily, glad Sam missed the familiar face on the wall, yet all too aware that I did not. The gold-framed print waited at the back of my closet, where I’d stowed it a few months before. At the time I called it a practical decision—there are few places in my house where anything breakable is safe—but I couldn’t deny that picking such a dark, cramped storage location carried metaphorical weight.
I’d bought the print from the BYU bookstore (natch) not long after Reed and I married. The blank white walls of our new life and our new apartment needed a guidepost, an unambiguous mark of identity, a reminder of the foundation supporting our fledgling family. The Parson print seemed perfect. I remembered other images of the Savior from my Greek Orthodox childhood: the serene Christ-child on Mary’s lap, halo glowing with Byzantine gold leaf, looking straight ahead with one hand beckoning; the earth-toned, skeletal, agonized Christ hanging in the nave. And later, after I was baptized a Latter-day Saint, the strangely feminine doe-eyed, sable-haired Jesus that looked plaintively heavenward from behind the Primary piano. Each held meaning for me. But this bold image wrought by Parson was the one the Church had recently chosen as a trademark of sorts, and I trusted its solid, formal Mormonness, its Jesus-as-sea-captain presence, to guide me safely forward.
The choice was a good one. As our household navigated the upheavals of new jobs and new roles and new babies, Christ in Red Robe was always there, studying us intently from the living-room wall of our apartment first, and then our starter home, and then our family-sized rambler. At one point a friend used the print to show me the duality captured in the Savior’s face: cover one half with your hand and he’s gently smiling, cover the other half and he’s sternly regarding. This visage was dramatically validated one Sunday during a Relief Society lesson, when the instructor related the background story of the painting, which was commissioned by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. Brother Parsons, overwhelmingly humbled the task at hand, tried again and again to produce an acceptable image, but with each incarnation the prophets would shake their heads in kind yet firm disapproval. Finally, the artist produced the image now familiar to us all. When he presented it to the prophets, they nodded their heads and reverently said, “That is Him.”
That last part of the story is myth, but I didn’t know it at the time. I went home that afternoon feeling elated, believing this picture on my wall was much more than an inspiring representation of Jesus: it was actually him, the one true Christ. With even greater fervor I made his one true gospel my one true focus. I studied it line upon line into the wee smalls, diagrammed and analyzed, discussed and debated with other serious disciples (or so I considered us), then carefully incorporated its precepts into every facet of our family life. No wreckages for this household, unlike my family of origin. Ours was a house built upon the rock, with gentle smiles and stern regard, all under the watchful, golden eye of the Savior on the wall.
The Savior I hid in the closet when the walls came tumbling down.
I’m not sure how to describe what happened next. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in Christ—not at all. What I stopped believing in was the version of him that I’d painstakingly created over a decade of zealous Mormonism. This was a Jesus who orchestrated the minutest circumstances of my life with wisdom and love. Everything—everything—that happened was his will, my gains and losses, my wounds and creations. All he required was my faith and obedience, and he would lead me along the foreordained pathway home, strait and narrow and full of happy success. He was a good Jesus, to be sure, one that I’d custom crafted to fit the contours of my experience and perception. But when those contours changed, when I realized that life was all about being broken, and then broken again, and then broken some more, this Jesus was no longer real for me. How, exactly, could I explain that to six-year-old Sam?
Turns out I didn’t have to. As I write this from my desk, I look across the room to the new print on the living room wall, Minerva Teichert’s Christ in a Red Robe. The frame is three-and-a-half feet tall, about Sam’s size. The standing Lord is haloed, like a Greek icon, although the gold circling his head is softer, subtle, nearly blending into the ivory clouds behind him. He is outlined with confident strokes, but filled with nuances of light and shadow, shades of color from the palette of earth. No bold sea captain here—Jesus walks in meek majesty, stained red from treading the wine-vat alone. He is not the grand puppet-master of humanity; he is its lifeblood, its light. Not existing above and apart from creation, but throughout and within.
Today is the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. The white lights on our Christmas tree reflect in the glass covering the giclee, making the Lord’s crimson robe appear to be studded with stars. The woman crouched at his feet reaches with surety to touch him—not the hem of his robe, but his very self.