All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
-William Shakespeare from As You Like It
And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
This Sunday in most congregations, the passion story in Luke’s Gospel will be retold. Perhaps you will march into the sanctuary waving palms and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor” or some similar hymn. Maybe you will be called upon to cry out in anger “Crucify him” at the appropriate points in the reading. In some places, the reading and sermon will be reworked into a liturgical drama with various parts being assigned to amateur actors/congregants. You might find yourself as Peter, or Mary, or Judas, or an unnamed member of the crowd. Regardless of your situation, the story is there and the casting call is out. Who will you be? For what role would you audition were you called upon to be a part of the retelling of the last hours of Jesus’ life?
All too often, I think, we hear this story as just that–a story told on the Sunday before Easter, a mere blip on life’s radar screen somewhere between the hosannas and the Easter lamb with mint jelly. It will kick off Holy Week, this day and this story. There’s no Maundy Thursday foot washing, no somber Good Friday reverencing of the cross, and no Easter Vigil kindling of the fire. Certainly there is no resurrection, only a sending back out into the world with a palm spear folded into a cross. What then are we to do?
I have a two-fold challenge to issue this year for you, and you can, in turn, put it out to your congregation as well. The first part involves a casting call. Choose one Passion story “character” for each day of the week and assume you have been called to audition for that person’s role. It might be the starring role of Jesus or the minor cameo of the young servant girl who accuses Simon Peter of discipleship. Will you audition for the role of Judas the betrayer? What about the role of Pilate or Herod? Could you envision the story through the eyes of one of the criminals executed with Jesus? How about the centurion who came to believe when he saw Jesus die? Maybe you’re brave enough to stand in the shoes of Mary as she watches her son hang disgraced on a cross.
Whatever characters you decide upon, read the passion story each day this week and really become your chosen character. Live the story through his or her eyes. Pray that you will be able–just for an hour–to walk in that person’s sandals. Meditate on the words, read the story aloud, use whatever acting skills and techniques you may have under your belt to be that person. I guarantee it will change you. You will experience the passion in a new way.
Part two of the challenge involves screening your own Holy Week Film festival. Even as you are actively being a part of the story through different characters’ eyes, I invite you to screen a variety of films that attempt to retell all or part of the story–choose one for each day of Holy Week, if you have time. Some are decidedly better than others; some are more controversial and offensive. Each one is the effort of an artist (and mere human being) trying to capture some element or vision or part of the greatest story ever told.
- Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew) by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1964)
- Jesus of Montreal by Denys Arcand (1989)
- The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorcese (1988)
- The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson (2004)
- The Greatest Story Ever Told by George Stevens (1965)
- The Robe by Henry Koster (1953)
- Ben Hur by William Wilder (1959)
- The Miracle Maker by Derek Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov (2000)
- Jesus by Roger Young (1999)
- Jesus of Nazareth by Franco Zeffirelli (1977)
- King of Kings by Nicholas Ray (1961)
Enjoy Easter Sunday with worship and family time, and then on Easter Monday (just for kicks) watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Before you are mortally offended and want to hang this writer, just remember that part of art–any art–is to illumine or point to truth, and sometimes that involves, shall we say, unusual approaches to the subject at hand. Who knows…you might even chuckle.
Oh, and of course, don’t forget Shakespeare’s immortal words printed above. Yes, all of us are indeed actors on life’s stage, and hopefully this week we all will have experienced a number of roles from Luke’s Gospel. Don’t leave Palm Sunday to the palm fronds. Go and tell. Live the story and live to share it. Thanks be to God.