Whenever I’m in the vicinity of West Jefferson, N.C., Holy Trinity Church in nearby Glendale Springs draws me like a spiritual lodestone. The tiny Episcopal church was built in 1901, closed in 1946 and reopened in 1980 after a visionary pastor named Faulton Hodge persuaded master fresco artist Ben Long to turn the entire chancel wall into a life-size depiction of the Last Supper.
The fresco invites contemplation. On the far left, Judas is leaving, his face unseen. Seven of Jesus’ disciples are clustered around the left side of a long table: Matthew is on the end, beside Phillip, Andrew (standing), James the son of Zebedee (on the near side, in green), Bartholomew, Jude (looking up at a woman who’s serving wine) and Simon the Zealot.
Simon Peter sits near the others but is turned away from them, thoughtfully toying with his beard. He’s looking hard at Jesus, who sits alone before an open window, his face in shadow but clearly revealing the burdens that weigh upon him. To the right sit John (drinking from the cup), James the son of Alphaeus, and at the end of the table, Thomas, who was sometimes called Didymus, “the twin.” Across the table from Jesus is an empty stool, an open invitation for the viewer to enter the picture and encounter the moment.
On a recent morning I found my way to the quiet church, which was blissfully empty at that time of day, before the summer crowds come. It remained that way for the full hour that I sat there on the front pew, in silence apart from the squeaky floor, absorbed in the scene.
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I sensed that though solitary, I was not alone. The Spirit was there, and the characters in the fresco seem to have a life of their own. I spent most of the hour staring at Thomas, mainly because he was staring at me. Jesus is looking down, inwardly focused, while the other disciples are either looking at Jesus, looking at one another or the serving woman, or staring into space – except for Thomas, who is looking at you.
Thomas, the one who would later find it so hard to believe that Jesus had truly risen form the dead, sits on the far right, peering around a post, his face illumined by light from the window. He is neither eating nor drinking. He sits with arms folded, looking hard into the eyes of any who dare to look back. Thomas’ look is challenging: It’s as if his own skeptical nature makes him suspicious of others’ motives or of their sincerity. If you sit there long enough and engage his eyes, you’ll hear him asking “Why are you here?”
“Are you in or not?”
Thomas has question marks on his face. “Are you sure? Am I sure? Are all of us crazy to be here, following Jesus?”
Yet there he sits, solidly in place, arms crossed, thinking deeply but not going anywhere.
I discover that my arms are crossed, too, and have been for a while. I look a bit like Thomas’ lost twin; I’m not going anywhere, either.
Yes, Thomas. I’m in. Thanks for asking.