The reality of Jesus Christ, the reality of His birth and life, His humble service, His love, His suffering, His gruesome death, His glorious triumph over the grave, His role as our Savior – these are critical elements of our faith that we must never forget. So much of our religion is designed to help us to always remember Him – the scriptures, prayer, the weekly sacrament, Sunday worship, Temple worship, and personal covenants to follow Him. And in Mesa, Arizona, there is now one more powerful tool to help us remember him – to remember that He is REAL – and this witness of Christ does not require membership in the Church or a temple recommend or anything more than simply going to the Visitors Centers at the Mesa, Arizona Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint and experiencing the incredible photographic exhibit, “Reflections of Christ” by local photographer Mark Mabry.
In a quiet, darkened gallery on the side of the Visitor’s Center, members of the public can experience beautifully crafted photographs from a massive project aimed at helping us to better grasp the reality of Jesus Christ. There are about 25 photos in this exhibit, composed during a four-month effort by Mark Mabry with the help of many others. They are accompanied by a special soundtrack of sacred music prepared by local artists specifically for these photos. The story of the making of this exhibit and its music is told in a beautiful 30-minute film that plays continuously in a side room next to the gallery. You can also see some related video footage at Mark’s Webpage about the Reflections of Christ project.
As I think of the many exhibits of art and photography I’ve enjoyed over the years, exhibits that brought tears from viewers have been rare. Tuesday night was one of those rare and dramatic moments. How fortunate I was to be in Arizona this week, with just barely enough free time on Tuesday night to dash over to the Mesa Temple and see “Reflections of Christ.”
Upon entering the Visitor’s Center, I received a very kind welcome from Hermana Parkus, a fabulous sister missionary originally from Chile. What a tremendous spirit (and beautiful smile). She escorted me to the gallery and told me a little about the exhibit. What a reverent and worshipful spirit I encountered there. The experience began with large black and white photos of a manger scene, taken at the mouth of a little cave in the Arizona desert, with a reposing Mary and the Infant on some hay, with our eyes drawn to the watching Joseph, who is the center of attraction in these photos. Then I delighted in the color photo of the baptism of Christ, in which the model really convincingly represents our Lord. The photo shows the joy of Christ and John moments after Christ has risen from the waters of Jordan, and is about to embrace his friend.
Then came the angels. Oh, the angels! Joyous, beautiful angels, swooshing down toward the ground to announce the birth of the Savior to shepherds who aren’t visible in the photo. Mark Mabry used a trampoline to get his angel models captured in mid-air, and spent hours with them to get the shots that he would bring together in a composite of angels more joyous and dynamic than any I’ve ever seen (so far, anyway). And the star of Bethlehem shines brightly in the background. This large, beautiful composite photograph is one that I would love to display in my home, along with many of the others. Please, I hope this will be reproduced and marketed.
Another outstanding photo, one I would love to display in my home, is the Ten Virgins. Such variety, beauty, and majestic lighting. Looks like it was photographed at night, but it was done in daylight.
One of my favorites is the scene of Christ just after the Resurrection. We see him walking away into bright light, strong, unstoppable, majestic, with the palm of his hand subtly revealing the mark of the nail still there, for our benefit.
The joy that sings in so many of these photos finds solemn counterpoint in a painful sequence including the agony of Gethsemane, an introspective Judas now beyond all hope, the flogging of Christ, and His suffering on the cross, enhanced by an unexpected rain during the photo shoot that helped all the people in the scene look a little more miserable. The experience at Gethsemane, so intensely personal and beyond all human ken, was represented with two nicely crafted photos that were the only ones that didn’t work for me. It may have been my own limitations that were in the way, but I did not get the sense of the unspeakable grief and pain the Savior was taking on as he bore the weight of all our sins. So how can a finite photo capture the magnitude of a cosmos of sin and grief beginning to implode on a lone focal point of the innocent Lamb of God offering Himself as a sacrifice for all mankind? I have no idea. I suppose unreasonable expectations on my part were the barrier here.
At the last photo, we see the remaining 11 apostles reaching up as Christ ascends above them to heaven. A dramatic moment of reaching is created in this image. And one of the men shown there is the kind brother who let me know about this exhibit, a man who had left the Church and found his way back. As I was looking at that photo and pondering his return and the kindness of our Lord, I noticed that the music in the background had changed to a most appropriate song, Amazing Grace. Yes, how amazing the grace of Jesus Christ is. No one of us is past His reach, if only we’ll reach up to Him and allow Him to bless us and forgive us.
As I walked through the gallery again, the message delivered by this majestic work of art was stronger than ever: Jesus Christ is real! He is real, as real and as tangible as any of the people in these realistic photos. His love is real, His triumph over death His real, His grace is real. And each of us will one day stand before Him, kneel before Him, and recognize Him as our Lord. When that moment comes, we will either recognize Him as our Lord whom we have sought to serve and already know, or as a stranger who was far from the thoughts and intents of our hearts. May it be the former! But in either case, we will see that He is real, more real than any scene in any photograph. So why wait? Why wait for reality to surprise us when we can accept it now – accept Him now – and prepare for that wonderful day when we are united with the Lord, our true and very real Friend and Savior.
I left that gallery, after having seen the photos several times and the stirring movie about their production, inspired to live better and to always remember Him. I am so weak and have so far to go, but the hope He offers us is real, almost tangible, as is the love and grace He offers so freely. We must never give up on Him but press forward daily, repenting and striving to follow Him, imperfect as we are.
After leaving the gallery, I saw Elder David Peterson, the Director of the Visitors Center, who was featured in part of the video and who helped guide and direct the effort of the team in taking on this sacred project. I was delighted to meet Brother Peterson on that day, which turns out to have been his last day as Director before returning to civilian life. And it was an honor to meet him, for I’ve heard of him before and am intrigued with the work he has done and will soon be doing again in international affairs. I was happy to share my overwhelmingly positive impressions of this wonderful effort.
If you’re in Arizona or anywhere close to Arizona, like, say, New Jersey, you might wish to visit Reflections of Christ at the Mesa, Arizona Temple.
Thank you, Mark Mabry. Thank you, Todd. Thank you, Arizona. Thank you, Elder Peterson and all the many others who made this exhibit possible.
Update: Thanks is due to several others (hat tip to Tara). Cameron Trejo of Cameron Trejo Films deserves a great deal of credit for masterfully depicting the story of the photography while also subtly teaching basic principles of the Gospel at the same time. Beautifully done, very creative, truly inspiring. Thank you, Cameron!
Jason Barney engineered and brought together the musicians and even recomposed “Joy to the World” to fit in the exhibit. Musicians included Clyde Bawden (piano), Freddie Ashby (male vocal), Melynda Brimhall (female vocal), and Hope Sheaperd on the cello. Nice work! The photos were expertly framed and donated by Rob Brinton of Matage Custom Framing in Mesa. Kim Eaton donated the build out of the entire gallery. And there was a large committee of volunteer help, that all used their talent to testify of the Savior.
(I called some family members last night to share my excitement about the exhibit. We all hope that some of these photos will one day be made available for purchase so members can have them in their home. Please! These are some of the few works of LDS religious art that I have on my wish list.)