'Passion Play' Still Burns Brightly

Spring Break seems a distant memory and Easter approaches – the end of Lent, my favorite season of the year. Spring has arrived, the days are longer, the ice is melting and the fishing opener is a month away.

But the Lenten season – and a 1992 "Passion Play" at St. Thomas – also provoked one of the most powerful and poignant spiritual moments of my life. The cast included students and faculty; I was one of them.

Professor Kevin Crossley Holland, who held an endowed chair, asked me to be in the play, a “modern” version of the ancient story adapted originally for BBC Radio. I was to play a television newsman covering the crucifixion and the events before and after.

The whole business sounded kind of crazy on first hearing, but I was afraid to turn down the offer – an untenured rookie eager to demonstrate that I was a good campus citizen. We had two or three rehearsals and my role proved more daunting that I’d imagined.

The stage was the Coughlan Field House floor and the props were simple, including a wooden horse that Jesus sat upon. My role was to watch a scene and then “describe” it to the imaginary television audience, neither easily done nor said. I mean, in one scene Jesus climbs down from the horse and addresses the assembled crowd:

“My father sent me, man, thee to redeem:

All thy ransom myself must pay,

Myself will die for love of thee;

If thou ask mercy, I say never nay.”

So, I paraphrased the Lord, looking into the camera and saying something like:

“Jesus told the crowd that God sent him to die for their sins. He showed no sign of resentment or fear and told those assembled that he loved them. He urged them to have faith and ask for mercy.”

I recall another scene, at night in the garden of Gethsemane:

“Deliver me, Father,” Jesus says, “from this pain.

Unto thy Son take heed:

Thou knowest I did never deed but good;

It is not for me this pain I lead,

But for man I sweat both water and blood.”

In my words for the camera, it came out as: “Jesus asked God to help him deal with the pain, noting that it wasn’t to atone for his own sins but for the sins of man. An angel later told Christ that God had, indeed, heard his plea.”

The most powerful of scenes, of course, was as Christ died on the cross. It’s about the only Scripture I can recall from memory (more or less) and I used it in my summary stand-up:

“They gave Jesus the drink he asked for and then he said, 'It is finished.' He bowed his head and he died (John 19:30:  '… he bowed his head and gave up His spirit')."

As I recall, those were my last lines, although the play’s final scene was near the tomb where the risen Christ approaches a tearful Mary Magdalen. After that, they turned on the lights in the field house, which had been dark for most of the play, each scene lit with its own spotlight.

With the lights on, we all started toward the exits, with the students singing: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.” As I walked with the students, I recall feeling great serenity; whatever life was about, it made sense. Whatever it was I thought I knew, I lost it long before Easter morning.

But no matter. Sometimes during Lent, I can still come close.