Yesterday afternoon I watched in wonder as my little Julia, one week past her 10th birthday, portrayed the beloved character Ti Moune, in her school drama club’s adaptation of the musical, Once On This Island. Spoiler alert: I fought back tears from start to finish, but not for the reasons I expected to.
Set in the French Antilles, Once On This Island tells the story of Ti Moune, an orphan peasant girl, “black as night,” who lives on one side of the island with her people— the poor slaves who make up the islands’ servant class. On the other side of the island live the wealthy grandes hommes, the fair-skinned land-owners who shut their eyes to the suffering and poverty of the peasants so they can benefit from their labor unhampered by conscience.
The island is overseen by four gods — Asaka, Mother of the Earth; Agwé, God of Water; Erzulie, Goddess of Love; and Papa Ge, Demon of Death. Unbeknownst to the peasants and grandes hommes alike, the gods commence a cosmic wager designed to answer the most enduring of questions: can love conquer death or is death the most powerful force in the universe. All agree, Ti Moune’s life will be the the balance sheet upon which the wager is played.
The gods cause a great storm to lash the island, during which a young grandes hommes, Daniel Beauxhomme, is fatally wounded. Ti Moune rescues Daniel, stepping into her destiny and holding back the Demon of Death by exchanging her life for his. With Papa Ge temporarily sated, Ti Moune nurses Daniel back to health, falling in love with him and imagining he loves her in return. Soon the grandes hommes realize Daniel is with Ti Moune, and bring him home to his father’s grand hotel on the other side of the island, the gates of which are tightly shut to keep the peasants out. Ti Moune, with the help of the gods, gains entrance and continues to care for Daniel, who begins to love her in return.
But at the moment it seems love will conquer the great divide between the privileged boy and the peasant girl, Daniel admits to Ti Moune that he is betrothed to a woman from his own class. Daniel is given the choice — go against the proscriptions of his community and choose Ti Moune, whom he loves and to whom he owes his life, or kneel to social expectation and marry his betrothed. Choosing convention and ease instead of loyalty and love, Daniel betrays Ti Moune and casts her away. At that very moment, Papa Ge arrives to test Ti Moune and play out the wager — he gives Ti Moune one final opportunity to recant on her vow, one final chance to save her own life. Brokenhearted, Ti Moune picks up a knife to stab Daniel in the back but in the final second she casts its violently to the floor and collapses in grief, choosing to die so that Daniel can live.
Two weeks later, Daniel is married and as is the custom, the bride and groom throw coins to the peasants outside the gate as part of their celebration. Starved and dying, Ti Moune calls to Daniel, hoping he will yet love her, but upon seeing her, he stoops only to place a silver coin in her outstretched hand, an act so profane it takes your breath away.
The gods, in their compassion, give Ti Moune a peaceful death, and moved by the depth of her love, turn her into a tree that to this day, the story goes, stands in the entrance to the hotel, forcing wide open the gates. The story ends with the ensemble telling us that for the generations to come, the children of both the peasants and the grandes hommes played beneath Ti Moune’s branches, one community formed from rich and poor, black and white, formed because of a love that conquered death.
Good theater blurs the lines between fiction and reality for the audience, and this is where my part picks up, with the blurry line of watching my daughter become Ti Moune, watching her wonder about her destiny, discover it in the broken body of a boy on the brink of death, trade her life for his, bear his betrayal, choose even to die, and then see her choice bloom bittersweet.
As the story unfolded and I started to realize that Daniel was going to betray Ti Moune, every ounce of my mama bear heart reacted. My souls’ depths started screaming, Don’t do it Ti Moune! He doesn’t deserve you. You, my sweet precious little girl, do not give your life for his. Take up that knife, drive it through his back, do whatever you must to live.
“Its just so different when its your child,” He whispered, there in the dark of the theater, as I saw in the face of my 10 year old daughter the face of Jesus, filled with chesed, with divine, loyal love that outrageously defies explanation and common sense and self-preservation, that argues beyond doubts’ shadow that all our theologizing about the cross is the mere clanging of symbols, useless to teach us anything real.
Want to know what the cross means? Skip all the pontificating by talking heads and don’t bother with all the Big Important Books purporting to explain it all. Just watch your child die for someone else. Even if is only in your imagination. Even if its just a play. And it doesn’t really matter who your child dies for, because I guarantee you there will never ever be someone who is so deserving that you will look at them, then at your child, and back again, and agree the exchange is legit. Never.
I touched the ethereal tip of something I have known my whole life and yet, in an instant, realized I have never really known: why Jesus died for me. Not the theology mind you; I know that of course. No, this was about the essence, the part that resists being reduced down words and bullet points. I grasped it, there, in the face of a little girl acting a part in a play, and I haven’t stop crying since. Jesus died because he loves me. But saying so, alas, the words can’t touch the meaning, can’t take us where we need to go. Still I try: I couldn’t love Him in return and He still died, not as a chess piece in some cosmic arrangement but because He couldn’t help himself. Because all of Him loved all of me, because love ran red hot in his veins, and nobody, not even God, was going to stop Him.
God watched him die and I wonder, did God’s mama bear heart scream too? Did God hold his tongue as I held mine, to let the story play out, to honor the choice made by His Son?
In the past I’ve had people say angrily to me “I didn’t ask Jesus to die for me,” and indeed, they did not. I understand the emotion they are expressing, the sense of non-agency involved with the idea that someone dies for you and you didn’t ask for it, the powerlessness, and the desire to reclaim both agency and power. And actually, I applaud that desire. I don’t think its pride. I think most of the time it shows itself in individuals who, in one way or another, have been denied human agency in their lives and the impulse to get it back is a God-given one. I have no quarrel with that.
And yet, I can’t help but feel they, and me too, we are all so painfully far from the glorious edge of this mystery.
The point is not theology or agency, nor is it a cosmic quid pro quo that says, “since Jesus died for you, you are now obligated to live for Him.” The point is not wallowing as undeserving or endlessly trying to enter into how much the crucifixion must have hurt.
The point, at least as I see it now, is this: we get glimpses of what love looks like in the ordinary stuff of life, the moments shared between friends, lovers, families. And these glimpses are real, they are, and they are good gifts from a Good God. But it is in the tidal wave of grief and suffering, where the distance from crest to trough terrifies us and defies our human ability to cope, that Love radiates its deepest hues. Ti Moune’s love for Daniel was certainly evident in the way she nursed him back to health and basked in his love for her. But it became powerful and otherworldly, it grew unimaginable dimensions as it faced Daniel’s rejection and betrayal, as it chose its own death rather than kill the beloved. Love that conquers death can only fully be seen juxtaposed to death, such that if we are ever going to know how much Jesus loves us, we have to stand there at the cross and watch it all unfold. Stand if you can, friend. I cannot. I collapse there, overcome. I am loved like that.
Why does God allow suffering and grief? I don’t have an answer. I think, probably, there is no answer, certainly not this side of death and maybe not on the other side either. But in the darkest moments of our life, if we can bear to watch the tidal wave at is crashes down on our heads, we just might catch a glimpse of what Love is, what Love does.