“I need to cross a border that’s hard to define. Maybe you know what I’m talking about? Or you don’t, but… you feel it. Because you’ve felt other borders, like youth and adulthood, maybe. I can’t change your fate…but I can help you meet it. We begin our journey to the border tonight.” — The OA
“How long have I been out?” “Three days.” “Did I die?” And with that, just minutes into the first episode, the religious and spiritual allusions in The OA, Netflix’s new hit show, begin. Prairie Johnson suddenly appears after being missing for seven years, but things are different. She calls herself The OA, she has scars on her back—and after having gone missing as a blind person, she can now see. As The OA comes home, she struggles with both its familiarity and strangeness, her new found freedom and the suffocation she feels from her parents. She is etheral, mysterious, supernal, light, kind, compassionate…and fragile. She can seemingly see into and through people. She begins to assemble a group of five disciples: Steve (the bully), Jesse (the stoner), Alfonso (the overachiever), Buck (the trans kid), and Betty Broderick-Allan, or the BBA (the teacher) for a mission: to find Homer.
The OA’s calling of this rag-tag bunch of followers is reminiscent of Jesus calling his own disciples—among them fishermen, tax collectors—who seemed like unlikely suspects to carry out an important mission. We see in those stories how Jesus himself exerted a magnetic draw over them so that they would leave their jobs and families to follow him. A couple of the persistent questions in these stories for us are: what did they see or feel in Jesus that they would want to follow him, and what did Jesus see and feel in them that he chose them for this mission? The Gospels, like The OA, unravels those answers in the course of the story—and tells us how they are changed in the process.
The show title only appears at the last fifteen minutes of the episode, signaling that once The OA and the five are assembled, the story and the season are fully engaged. The OA begins to unwind her back story, daughter of a Russian oligarch, a dream premonition that came true, and a near death experience (NDE) where she is ushered into a dark but starlit place/dimension with a woman that could be an indigenous healer, a Muslim, a Hindu, an angel, or God…we don’t know. The woman asks The OA if she wants to go back. The OA says yes, and the woman takes her sight because what comes next, “will be too horrible for her to see,” a foreshadowing of Episode Two.
This near death experience raises questions, which persist throughout the entire show: What is the afterlife? Is it a place like the Christian notion of heaven? Is it a faraway location, a parallel reality, or a different dimension? Do we have a say about whether we stay or return? If so, is more akin to reincarnation? Fundamentally, it asks: what happens when we die? And what happens when or if we come back?
- “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 ) Jesus asks this of the disciples and this is the question the five and the viewers must decide about The OA. Is she a healer, teacher, leader, or just a good storyteller? Is she an unstable victim of trauma or has she been touched with the divine?
- “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:35–50) The OA assembles five unlikely and, in some cases, reluctant followers for a secret mission, much like Jesus when we calls his own disciples. (Note also the difference between the call stories in John 1 and Mark 1. In Mark 1 the disciples immediately follow Jesus, no questions asked. In John 1 they require more convincing.)
- “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith—in one other, in the future, in the afterlife, in the something more in life—is a prominent theme throughout the series.
- The Invisible Self
The OA says to Steve, “You don’t want to go there until your invisible self is more developed anyway. … Your longing, the desires you don’t tell anyone. … You spend a lot of time on the visible you. It’s impressive but she probably thinks the invisible you is missing.”
We spend a lot of time focused on our visible selves, our bodies, our weight, and the visible things we own, acquire, or manage. Lent is a time to reflect and renew our focus on the invisible inner self. How do you want to develop your invisible self this Lent?
2. Trusting in the Face of Mystery
The OA tells the five, “I’m going to tell you my story from the beginning, and there will come a time when you’ll see why you’re here, what you might do together, how you could help people that you’ll never meet. But you have to pretend to trust me until you actually do.”
Have you ever found yourself inexplicably or mysteriously drawn to a task, a project, and group of people that you could have never expected? Why did you say yes? Why? What came of it? Is God calling you now to consider taking a leap of faith into something new and unexpected?
When The OA met with the five in the abandoned house, she lit five candles as she told her story. Light one or more candles this week, lower the artificial light, and be still. As The OA counsels Steve, “Maybe try closing your eyes more often. Being blind was powerful. It made me listen and it made people underestimate me. … Yeah, its boring at first.” In the glow of the flickering light of the candle, tend to your own invisible self.
Share Your Origin Stories
We have in our personal histories events that have profoundly shaped who we are now, just like The OA. Our culture is full of origin stories, notably in the wave of superhero movies, where one moment or a series of moments led the hero to their mission, their gifts as well as their struggles. What moments or experiences have most powerfully shaped the person you are today? This week, share a short story with someone else or a group about an event or moment that made you who you are.