Winter Solstice

“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.

Comments

  1. “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.”

    Thanks, Kathy, for your words this solstice.

  2. “Broken, and broken, and broken again…”

    Yes.

    “The woman crouching reaches to touch him- not the hem of his robe, but his very self.”

    Yes.

  3. It’s dark outside, but still the Light of the world shines within, suggesting that a new and brighter day approaches.

  4. Touching and honest, Kathryn, like everything you write. Thank you.

  5. Lovely.

  6. Jim Donaldson says:

    Kathryn, you may be interested to know a bit of trivia: Sister Teichert’s Christ in the Red Robe was originally commissioned and paid for by a group of Mormon women, in the predecessor to my current ward, to hang in Denver’s first real Mormon building around 1945. The painting was damaged in a fire in that building in the 1960s, repaired by BYU, and in that dark period where no art was allowed in Mormon meetinghouses, it was stored in a member’s basement. It was then donated to the church, since there was nothing else to do with it. The original is nearly 6 feet tall. We recently built a new four story city-style building a few blocks from that original building. All of our hallway art is Sister Teichert’s work. We have a large print of Christ in the Red Robe in our chapel foyer—we only have one foyer, by the elevator—it is our centerpiece. It was full circle for this painting (at least a print of it) and for us as a ward. It’s gorgeous. It also speaks to the difference between illustration and art. This is art.

  7. Kathryn, I am rapidly becoming your biggest fan. I love reading your work. I feel that I am going through that period of time when I am learning that life is about being broken and broken some more. My first instinct is to blame God because it’s all his will, right? But, I feel that I am coming through much more spiritually mature (I hope). And closer to my Savior – my real Savior (I hope).

  8. Honestly I like a variety of pictures of Jesus.

  9. Thank You, Kathryn.

  10. Thanks, Kathryn. Your stuff resonates at the deepest levels — beyond the heart. It gets in your marrow.

  11. I am in the recent habit of having not much to say after reading you lovely posts, Kathryn. So it is again today. Simply wonderful.

  12. And herein lies the difference between illustration and art.

  13. What you’ve written here is a wonderful Christmas gift to me.

  14. “when I realized that life was all about being broken, and then broken again, and then broken some more

    And sometimes, that can just make me tired. It’s one of those times. Thanks for the reminder that those times can help me understand Him better, if I will let them. It’s hard, sometimes, to do that, though. You know? You know.

  15. Certainly not everything that happens to me is his will. If someone hurts me, he allows it to let us grow from the experience, but think of your children; in some sense, you feel you wish you didn’t have to let go of your kids and let them get hurt in the world, but you know you have to.

    But when I, as a broken vessel, come to him, he does give me peace, comfort and joy. Nothing I can imagine exceeds that experience.

    Foreordination is like ordination or setting apart in this life. We may be ordained to the priesthood in this life, but if we don’t do what that responsibility requires, we will not realize the blessings. We may be set apart to serve in a role in the ward, but if we do not act, it pretty much nullifies the setting apart.

    Jesus, who was also foreordained to his mission, had to decide. “… let this cup pass… not as I will, but as thou wilt …” He had to submit his will in addition to everything else.

    My most fervent prayer is, that I would have the courage to submit to the Lord, to be able to let his will be done. Time and time again, I run into the fact that I have weaknesses that make me stumble. “I give unto men weakness that they may be humble.”

    Thank you.

  16. He had to submit his will in addition to everything else.

    Velska, I really appreciated your comment. This part of it reminds me of Elder Maxwell who said something along the lines of the fact that our will is really the only thing of our own that we have to give to God — everything else we have is His anyway.

  17. Kathy you have magic powers.

  18. Jim (#6), awesome! Wish I could visit your chapel. Thanks for the backstory–I had no idea.

    I appreciate these remarks, everyone. Thank you for reading and commenting; it means a lot to me.

    And Steve, you’re right about the magic powers. At the moment I’m making a stack of Eggo waffles disappear.

  19. When our stake center was renovated a couple of years ago, they introduced lots of Minerva Teichert prints to the building. I love them.

    Yes, Jesus came to heal the broken hearted, not prevent hearts from being broken. But it may take heartrending events to make us believe that, and to understand that we are not an exception to the rule.

  20. Mike Parker says:

    Jim #6:

    I believe the original now hangs in the lobby of the Relief Society building adjacent to Temple Square. I saw there a few years ago, and the sister at the desk confirmed that it was a Teichert original.

  21. “…life was all about being broken, and then broken again, and then broken some more…”

    This reminded me of the scripture reading I did in our Christmas program Sunday, from 3 Nephi 1,. Nephi, the son of Nephi, aware of the impending threat of massacre by non-believers, must have felt that way when he spent the day in pleading with the Lord, before receiving the marvelous answer, “Lift up your head and be of good cheer; for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world.”

    Winter solstice is a good time to remember the Savior, coming in His red robe. Thank you for this great post and reminder.

  22. Kathy, this touched me very deeply. You know. Thank you.

  23. When I comment here, which is very rare, I comment under the name Minerva (I thought it would be cheesy to do so on this post), in part because I respect Teichert so much (but mostly because I am delusional enough to consider myself a goddess of wisdom).

    Anyway, the reason I am commenting is to say is thanks for making me cry at work! This was absolutely beautiful and balm to those of us in the throes of being broken.

  24. I appreciate your ideas about re-creating your faith. A faith you felt was whole and substantive but life urged you to ask hard questions. As you did you found a deeper and richer faith. When I ask those hard questions of myself, of my faith, I find more. No need to fear losing what I already have.

    It is good to read something so thoughtful about Christ – not just another vague writing about ‘remembering the real meaning of Christmas’.

  25. Like others have said, this post is wonderful — it incorporates many different ideas and thoughts so well. Thanks, Kathy. And the way you use language is beautiful — careful and deliberate, without calling attention to itself.

    Of the many remarkable things I’ve read in the Bloggernacle, this is included right at the top. Thanks.

  26. “… 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. … when I realized that life was all about being broken, and then broken again, and then broken some more, …”

    This is exactly it. Life seems to be about suffering and learning to deal with it rather than being happy and successful. I was happiest when I was oblivious and naive. My suffering has brought me closer to God and Christ, and has thus brought me more joy than I ever had when I was happy.

  27. Melissa Y. says:

    Beautiful Kathy. Thanks for sharing this bit of light on a dark day.

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