The face of a father

Screen Shot 2014-04-20 at 9.42.44 PMEaster always reminds me of my time in Slovakia, where I spent 1993 teaching English. I lived in a small village near the Polish border and tromped through more snow that winter than most folks in Louisiana have or ever will see. Snow was often up to my waist. Maybe the coming out of such a cold winter is part of why Easter is such a big deal to Slovaks.
They prepare for it for weeks, including small table centerpieces where they plant grass or wheat seeds and have these living arrangements growing throughout Lent. Families sit around the tables each night and watch the seedlings emerge into beautiful plants. Then, on Easter Sunday, teenage boys traditionally go in groups to the homes of their female classmates and proceed to throw large quantities of water on the girls. The girls retaliate by chasing the boys around with switches. Seriously, that water throwing-switch chasing thing is a major part of Easter in Slovakia.
But this year, I’ve also spent time thinking about a church I visited in 2011 when I returned to Slovakia for the wedding of one of my former students. Prior to the wedding, I visited a small village near Zilina, Slovakia, to spend time with the family of another of my former students. This student was one of the brightest I taught and is now a computer wizard building web sites for companies around the world, but when I taught him long ago, he was a lanky 11-year-old.
He isn’t the only thing that’s changed in the years that have passed. After Communism ended in the early 1990s and through the process of restitution, many Slovak families were able to re-acquire properties they had owned prior to the Soviet Communist regime. This family had lived in an apartment in 1993. In the years since, they’ve relocated part of the year to their family home in the small mountain village where they continue to work to restore it.
The village, nestled beside the Mala Fatra National Park, is quiet and peaceful. Every day I was there, shortly before dusk, we took a long walk around its hills and valleys. During one of our walks, we found ourselves standing in front of the village church. Like many buildings of Slovakia, it was freshly painted a pale yellow. It was contemporary architecture and featured a large crucifix on an exterior wall, near the front of the church. I must have commented on the large crucifix, because my friends began to tell me its story.
At some point in the not-so distant past, one of the community’s favorite and most famous sons, offered to donate a new crucifix to the church. The man had grown up in the village and gone on to become a rather famous sculptor. His family remained in the village, and the church was eager to accept the offer.
So, the sculptor began to work on the large piece.
When it was finally unveiled inside the church in its place of prominence, my friends told me the village was abuzz. I’m uncertain how much time passed before the rumblings became public, but apparently, some in the church thought the sculpture’s face of Christ bore a striking resemblance to the father of the sculptor — a man they all knew.
According to my friends, some of the church members said, “I don’t want to go to church, look up and feel like I’m worshiping my neighbor.”
And, as sometimes happens in churches, the issue became quite contentious. Finally, the crucifix was removed and hidden away, and the church decided to commission another sculptor to create a new crucifix.
So he did, and they placed it inside the church where the original piece had once hung.
Years passed, and things settled done. Somehow the church eventually decided to hang the original crucifix outside.
My friends and I stood there quietly looking at the crucifix, when one of them spoke.
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “They say the sculptor of the crucifix now hanging inside the church also based the face of Christ on his own father. The difference is that none of these people know him.”
The story has stuck with me. There are many ways to look at it, but for me, I can’t help thinking of Victor Hugo and a line from Les Miserables: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

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