“It feels strange to approach Easter without a pageant,” my mom said on the phone this week. “Even though we haven’t had one for a while.”
They haven’t. The last one was in 2006. But I knew what she meant.
For nearly a decade, the weeks before Easter meant stacks of sheet music and long racks of costumes, palm fronds and orchestra music. They meant weekly rehearsals, then twice-weekly ones, and finally two weeks of piling into the car and heading to the church building nearly every night, for dress rehearsals and then five performances in four days.
It meant stashing our street clothes and backpacks in Sunday School rooms, running up and down the halls between scenes, while my mother (who was there too) fretted about lack of sleep and takeout meals and homework left unfinished. (It never was.) It meant Dad growing a beard so he wouldn’t have to glue on a false one, then pulling out the clippers to shave it off as soon as we came home from the last performance on Sunday night.
This year on Palm Sunday, in our tiny church here in Boston, we stood in the pews and waved our palm fronds as the children marched in a ragged line waving theirs, all of us singing “Hosanna.” Later in the service, we did a quick tour through Holy Week: the Last Supper that became the first communion for the disciples, Jesus’ anguish in the garden as he faced what he knew was coming. We talked about Pilate’s reluctance to sentence Jesus to death, how the crowd clamored for Jesus’ blood and how Pilate capitulated. We heard about the darkness that covered the earth for three hours in the afternoon, the way the soldiers mocked Jesus, the words of the two thieves crucified with him, the slow, quiet carrying away of the body to lay in a new tomb.
And the whole time, I saw, not the colorful drawings of my childhood Bible or the gritty, blood-soaked images of Mel Gibson’s film, but my own home church, the one I still go back to when I visit my family.
I saw the sanctuary transformed, the pulpit moved offstage and replaced by an elaborate, multilevel set with a black-curtained orchestra pit off to the side. I saw dozens of men and women I knew, hands and feet and faces darkened with stage makeup, the older people walking more slowly without their glasses, everyone but the smallest children wearing head coverings, making them surprisingly difficult to identify.
I saw the story of Jesus made alive by my people, by Robert and Lisa and Shane and Greg, by Diana and Max and Keith, by Ravona and Tracye and Jana and my dad. I saw George, dapper in his black tuxedo, conducting the music and directing the action. And I saw myself – first as a servant of the wise men, later as a musician in the house of mourning when a young girl died, then as the bride in the wedding at Cana. And always as a villager, part of the choir-crowd, observing and listening and singing the songs that took us from Bethlehem to Galilee to Jerusalem to Golgotha.
I saw myself cheering when Jesus raised the girl from the dead, shouting “Crucify him!” with the rest of the crowd, watching wide-eyed as he took his last breath on the cross, hearing the centurion say, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” I saw myself bursting into song with the others when Jesus emerged from the tomb in a glittering white robe. And I saw myself crowded onstage next to my parents and sister, all of us raising our hands for the last chorus of the triumphant final song, “Hallelujah to the Lamb.”
They said we did the play as a witness, to tell the story of Jesus to those in our community who had never heard it. But more than anything, we were making the story come alive for ourselves.
I have heard the story of Jesus all my life, through sermons and readings, songs and Sunday School stories. It lives in my heritage, in my very bones. But acting it out, stepping into it as a participant, held a power no other telling ever has.
For a few nights, I left behind my routine of homework and flute practice and school social politics, and entered a different world: a hot, dusty place simmering with political tension, a world of farmers and laborers who were waiting for a Messiah. They and their leaders were divided and confused, but captivated, by this gentle man from Galilee with fire in his eyes.
Each year we make the journey again, from the wilderness to the city, from the upper room to the garden, down the Via Dolorosa to the cross. We realize again the depth and power of the love we cannot explain. Our hearts leap within us when Sunday comes, and we can say: He is risen.
And every year I remember how it felt: the smell of the makeup, the feel of the wooden stage under my bare feet, the sight of Jesus walking among us, healing and teaching. The sound of Pilate thundering, “Whom shall I give you?” and the crowd’s answering roar. I hum the songs, their melodies now inextricably intertwined with that story. And I remember the joy when he stepped out of the tomb and the lights flared into brilliance, and we knew this man was just an actor on a stage, but we also knew in a deep-down-knowing way: He is risen indeed.