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Regarding the Son of God

Last Thursday I saw On the concept of the face, regarding the Son of God. This production was the centerpiece of this year’s Fringe Festival and was co-presented by our mission partner, Broad Street Ministry. As the title suggests, this is a play about God. But the manner in which this play gestures toward the divine might surprise you. I warn you: this is not ‘typical’ theater …

Two stagehands assist an elderly man to a white sofa at the upper left corner of the set. He sits down gingerly, fading into the cushions on account of his white bathrobe, and focuses his attention on the television in front of him. Enter his son – a man in his mid-40s presumably getting ready for work. The son gathers papers from the white kitchen table, collects his keys, and heads for the door. But, just as he grabs his suit jacket from the coat rack, his father bursts into tears. The son helps him up from the sofa, revealing to the audience the brown stain on the seat of the father’s robe. This elderly man has lost control of his bowels, and excrement has seeped through diaper and robe onto the furniture. Soon the pristine set will be covered in brown stains, as the father’s repeated bouts of incontinence leave the white chair cushions, the white tiled floor, and the white sheets soiled. The son, filled with both frustration and compassion, dutifully attends to these messes; after each episode he lovingly washes his father’s body and changes his hospital gown, only for it to be soiled again.

The audience’s eyes are not the only ones watching the action unfold … Looming over the scene – surveying the suffering from an over-sized portrait – are the eyes of Jesus Christ.  

The iconic portrait of Jesus that provides the backdrop for On the concept of the face, regarding the Son of God, casts this play in a theological light. It cannot simply be a story about a man caring for his geriatric father … The imposing image of Christ watching over the scene forces many questions about God, especially about God’s presence – or absence – in the midst of this family’s suffering.  

The publicity materials for this play read: “Meet Jesus in his most extreme absence.” The audience could certainly walk away from the play with this impression – that Jesus was nowhere to be found in the messiness of this family’s life. The presence of God is something many of us question when confronted with suffering; even the most faithful Christians wonder, “Where is God?” The impassive face of Christ looming over this set does little to counter the sense of Jesus’ extreme absence. Yes – the image of Christ is conspicuous, but his gaze seems distant, uncaring even.

Yet, as I see it, Christ is extremely present. I’m not just saying this because I’m a pastor and I’m supposed to reassure you of God’s presence in our lives – although maybe I say this with such confidence because I bring the fullness of the Christian story to this story of father and son.

I see Christ present in the son’s actions – in the way he cares for his father in the messiest of situations. As he bathes his father after each bout of incontinence, I see Christ washing the feet of his disciples. Though the son may not have a framework for his actions, he is modeling Christ. “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet,” Jesus says, “you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). As the son weeps with his father, I see Christ weeping on his way to Lazarus’ tomb (John 11:35). Even as the son succumbs to frustration and loses his temper, I see Christ. Throughout the play tension builds as the son repeatedly washes his father and changes his clothes. Finally, the son reaches his breaking point and lets out a jarring scream. Even here, as stress overtakes him, I see the Christ who overturned the tables of the moneychangers. The son’s outburst recalls the righteous anger of Christ. This is the righteous anger of those who rage at the brokenness of the world, knowing this is not what God desires for us.  

As the play draws to a close, the son exits and eight unassuming children enter. One by one, in a game of follow-the-leader, the children unzip their backpacks and begin launching grenades at the two-dimensional image of Christ (don’t worry – the grenades aren’t live). After this desecration of the face of Christ (which would warrant another blog post altogether) words appear where the portrait of Jesus had been: “You are my shepherd.” And then, three more letters appear: N.O.T. “Not” fades back and forth, leaving members of the audience to decide for themselves whether God is or is not our shepherd. As one who memorized the 23rd Psalm in Sunday school, my mind drifted to images of green pastures … a far cry from the soiled set before us. But these words also called to mind the opening line from the Psalm that comes just before Psalm 23: “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”

Many of us recognize these words not from Psalm 22, but from Jesus’ agonizing cry from the cross. And this is the moment, here on the cross, that proclaims once and for all that God is present with us. On the cross Jesus experiences the depths of suffering. And because of the cross, we know that Jesus – that God – stands with us in all we face, whether that is a devastating diagnosis, the demoralizing loss of a job, or the heartbreak of caring for an aging parent. And if we have eyes to see, we see that the Spirit empowers us to be hands, feet, and heart of Christ in the suffering.  

Posted by Sudie Thompson at 12:30 PM
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