Three years ago, Jee Hei and I had a chance to travel to Berlin, Germany, for about three days. We enjoyed the trip so much visiting many museums and historic places. And among all those places we visited, one place still remains deeply in my heart. It is the Chapel of Reconciliation located right on the street where the famous Berlin Wall once stood. What captured my heart in this chapel was neither its mesmerizing architecture, nor its modern sanctuary. It was this altar piece hanging on the wall of the sanctuary. Look at the picture.
The wooden altar piece shows the famous scene of the Last Supper. But as you can see, the face of Jesus is badly broken off. We can tell that’s Jesus only because we already know how the Last Supper usually looks. Then, how come this strange, even grotesque, altar piece is kept in this chapel?
This altar piece was from the Church of Reconciliation, the original church that stood from 1894 to 1985 right at the site of this current chapel. Then, what happened to that church? It was during the time of the Cold War. Western Germany and Eastern Germany began to build the Berlin Wall. They both constructed their own barriers on their side at the same time. So, what we call the Berlin Wall was not just a single wall, but actually two walls running paralleled to each other. So between those two walls, there was an open ground, a buffer zone. Sadly enough, the church got trapped exactly within that space between the walls. No one could access the building except the border guards who used the church tower as an observation post. In 1985, the East German government decided to blow up the church building for security purposes. But the altar piece miraculously survived the demolition and could be rededicated to the current chapel later, even though the face of Jesus was totally broken off.
As soon as I saw the broken faced Jesus, I couldn’t move my feet. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the face of Jesus. To be honest with you, it was a little uncomfortable at first. I thought, people could get a replacement, a decent one with a complete face of Jesus. But that impression went away as I felt like I heard the voice of Jesus telling me something though his disfigured face. “Right here, I suffered with my church, with my people when they went through the coldest days of the Cold War. I was broken with them in the darkness and never left them alone.” The words hit my heart so deep. Jesus was broken because he was there in the midst of human brokenness, in the midst of the violence and division caused by worldly powers. There, I realized once more, the true meaning of our Lord’s passion and death. It was encapsulated right in that broken face of Jesus.
Today is Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. A large crowd gathers to see Jesus’ holy face. As Jesus enters, they praise his name and shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Matthew 21:9) The crowd is excited and so sure that Jesus is the one, the Messiah, the mighty leader who can immediately turn their unjust world upside down—take the kingdom back from the Romans, liberate them from the oppression, and restore their glorious days in a new kingdom.
From his face, the hopeful crowd is eager to find assurance. They look for a shimmering light of divine glory, a royal majesty of a king, and an unmistakable gleam of triumph…from his face. But in reality, Jesus’ entry is not exactly triumphal. It’s quite far from the so-called “Roman Triumph,” a spectacular public ceremony for a victorious military commander. Rather, his entry is just a small town parade. Jesus doesn’t wear a purple robe. He is just in his humble cloths worn out through his long and rough journey. He is not on a four-horse chariot but only on a poor donkey. Jesus doesn’t have a royal entourage or army to display his power. He only has his disciples, a disorderly bunch including a rebel, a tax collector, and some Galilean fishermen.
Watching this lowly entry, watching the meek and mild face of the gentle Jesus, the crowd feels frustrated. Still they are somehow cheering and keeping their expectation because they heard about so many miracles and great things that Jesus did. But it doesn’t take too long for them to turn their back from Jesus completely. As soon as the crowd realizes that Jesus will not satisfy their needs, as soon as they find that Jesus will not be that kind of leader they have wanted and waited for, some of them just return to their ordinary lives, but some of them get infuriated and shout before Pilate, “Crucify him!” They mock him and spit on his face.
And we all know the rest of the story, how he suffered and died on the cross. On the cross, his face was covered with blood coming down under the crown of thorns on his head. From his broken face, the crowd only saw disgrace and shame. However, for those who believe in him, his face is the holy countenance of God. His broken face is the face of divine compassion, the face of unconditional love. From that sacred face, we find the assurance that he always suffers with us in the midst of our crisis and walks with us through our mundane struggles.
Standing before the altar piece in the Chapel of Reconciliation…looking at the broken-faced Jesus, I remembered the prophet Isaiah’s words on the suffering servant: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:2-5).
Faithful friends in Christ, we Christians don’t believe in an otherworldly, apathetic god who just looks down upon us from heaven above. But we believe in Jesus who loves us so much that although he “was in the form of God…emptied and humbled himself, took the form of a slave, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-9). This Lord we trust and follow is with us always in our suffering and endures our pain on our side even in the darkness.
Today, we are facing a crisis we don’t know when it will end; the number of confirmed cases, the death tall, the unemployment rate go up day by day. We hide ourselves and live in fear and despair. But even in the midst of this grave crisis, let us never lose our trust in Jesus and in his cross, never lose our faith in his compassionate love that comforts us, empowers us, and saves us. May the broken-faced Jesus visit you today and dwell in your heart. And may he firmly assure you once again that he loves you, and he is with you no matter what. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim