For those who observe it, Lent is a serious season. It is a time for reflection, self-denial, penitence and renewal of faith. Modeled on the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil, and culminating with an annual recounting of the events leading to the crucifixion, it prepares us to embrace the glorious dawn of Easter and the promise of eternal life with Christ.
Because the Gospel Passion stories read almost like a script, congregations will often use dramatic performance to bring them to life for the faithful. This may take the form of a multi-voiced reading, the use of sounds such as a rooster crowing or a nail being hammered, changes in lighting, the use of candles, or even a costumed play. It is important to note, however, that as the complexity of the dramatic elements increases, so too does the chance for something to go wrong. How do I know? The Living Last Supper tells me so.
This Lenten drama is a production involving thirteen performers in full costume reenacting Leonardo DaVinci’s interpretation of the last meal Jesus ate with his disciples before he was arrested. The curtain opens on the Upper Room come to life. The table is set exactly as in the famous painting and each actor is dressed, coiffed and posed to match the disciple he is portraying. If you are familiar with the painting, you will remember that it depicts a moment of action in the story, as the disciples respond to Jesus’ statement “One of you will betray me.”
Here are the words of the narrator as the play begins:
“The disciples are startled, each in a different way by the tragic pronouncement made by Christ. One registers horror. Another cries, ‘This is preposterous.’ Another disbelieves what he has heard and reaches for a companion to confirm that his ears have not tricked him. Still another begs Christ to reveal the name of the betrayer while yet another stoutly proclaims his own innocence. Judas draws back from Christ, overturning a salt shaker as he clutches tightly in his fist the bag containing his pitiful reward for betraying his master. Jesus alone is calm in the wake of the turmoil his six words have created. It is at this point that we share what each of the disciples remembered of how he came to Christ and how he felt about him.”
I must admit, I am rather fond of this play. I have to be, to have produced it so many times. And what’s not to love? It’s a great evangelistic tool, since the actors always invite friends and neighbors to watch them perform. It’s educational, as the actors’ monologues introduce the congregation to likely unfamiliar aspects of the disciples’ lives. It’s inspirational for the participants because it makes them feel like “they were there” in that Upper Room. And for me, as a female pastor, it always gave me a chance to get to know the men in the congregation better while providing them with a chance for fellowship and mutual support.
Those are great reasons. But looking back over the many years of Living Last Supper productions, what stands out to me most is how they highlighted just how human the first followers of Jesus were. In the scripture, the disciples can take on an iconic stature. In the body of someone you know, anxious about his pending performance, it is easier to see how like us they were. And that helps us to see how like them we can be. Too often, people are paralyzed by the mistaken belief that God only calls the perfect. Watching his “followers” flub a line, pause for too long trying to recall, lose a piece of beard, knock over a goblet or accidently elbow the guy next to him and still have a place at Jesus’ table is empowering.
One year, at the request of a particularly insistent mother, Jesus was played by a 15-year-old. Everyone was nervous about that, since you can never be certain what a teenager might say. Before the worship service I had a literal “come to Jesus” talk with the kid and was satisfied that he was ready. Everything went as planned during the performance. He said his lines perfectly and with appropriate emotion. After the twelve disciples presented their monologues, it was time for him to break the bread. He picked up the loaf from the plate in front of him and recited the Passover blessing flawlessly:
“Praised is He of whose bounty we have partaken, and through whose goodness we live. Praised art Thou, O Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who nourishes the whole world in goodness, grace, loving kindness, and compassion. He gives food to all flesh, for His mercy is everlasting. Because of His enduring goodness, we have not lacked sustenance for all living things of His creation. Praised are Thou, O Eternal, who provides food for all.”
As instructed, he then put his thumbs under the loaf to break it where it was supposed to be cut. But it wasn’t. The altar guild always remembered to do it, but the stage hands obviously didn’t get the memo. Sweat began to roll down Jesus’ forehead as he struggled with the stubborn loaf. Then his hands started to shake. Frustrated and seeing no relief, he mumbled, loud enough to be picked up by the microphone, “Who made this bread?”
There was an awkward pause, then one disciple responded, “I don’t know, but Caesar made the salad!”
While the congregation was reeling with laughter, someone cut the bottom of the loaf and when their attention was again focused on the table, Jesus took bread, gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body, broken for you,” and we believed Him.
Communion is a sacrament and should be served reverently. How it is received is another matter. Usually that issue is only observed by the pastor and her/his lay assistant. Since DaVinci told the disciples that if they wanted to be in the picture, they should crowd together on the far side of the table, that makes it easy to allow the congregation to come forward to receive on the empty side. It also gives the actors something they rarely see – a close-up view of their fellow parishioners ingesting the bread and “wine”. So when a woman put “the body of Christ” in her mouth, then retrieved the sopping mass with her thumb and forefinger and dipped it into the chalice, I guess I should not have been surprised by the loud, collective “Eeewww…” emanating from Jesus and His followers.
The first time I directed the Living Last Supper, I was 27-years-old and the associate pastor of a larger congregation. Thinking that wrangling a bunch of amateurs into wearing fake beards, long dresses and speaking in public wouldn’t be too difficult, I passed the word for volunteers. Not getting them in a timely fashion, I asked the secretary to put a note in the church bulletin. On Sunday morning, this is what was listed on the announcement page:
By the end of the worship service I had twelve “yeses” and one “maybe”. The maybe’s name was Les. He’d said that if I really needed him, he would do it.
The next day I set about assigning parts to people by body type, age and facial hair, trying to match folks as closely as possible with the DaVinci painting. I had still one disciple too few. I needed Les to play the part of John.
Knowing that that same evening I would see Les’s wife, Doris, at a Sign Language class, I figured I could send a message to Les through her. I sent a message, all right, but not the one I expected. Seeing Doris down the hall at the school, I shouted, “Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband, Les. I need a John.” It took me a full thirty seconds before I realized what I had said. It took no time for Doris and everyone else within earshot to figure it out, and they were in full guffaw long before I had any clue why. When my verbal stupidity finally hit me, so did the crimson in my cheeks. We all had a delightful laugh, and then the embarrassment was over, or so I thought.
Two nights later, the men got together for their first rehearsal. They were nervous about doing speaking parts and had a hard time getting started. Someone asked, “Does anyone know a joke they could tell to ease the tension?”
“I think Rev. Laura should tell what happened the other night after the Sign Language class,” Les suggested. “My wife said it was hilarious.”
Now remember, I am the only woman in the room with thirteen nervous men, and I am their 27-year-old pastor. The fact that I even thought it was okay to tell this story is proof that yet again, I had not engaged my brain before opening my mouth.
I began: “The other night I was at Sign Language class. I knew I needed to talk with Doris and ask her to give a message to her husband for me because I needed him to play a disciple… So without thinking, when I saw her, I yelled down the hall, ‘Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband, Les. I need a John.’ Can you believe it? With twelve the disciples to choose from, I have to pick that one. I mean, why couldn’t I have said, ‘Doris, I need to talk to you about your husband Les. I need a Peter.’
There was a moment of awkward silence as it occurred to me what I had just said. Embarrassed, I hung my head. When I looked up, thirteen men were rolling off their seats, shaking with laughter, and one of them was trying to stuff a script in his mouth. Realizing there was no way to survive this without a moment to compose myself, I headed toward the door. Just as I opened it, I heard a voice call out behind me, “Thank God there wasn’t a disciple named Richard.”
My love of the Living Last Supper knew no bounds. We performed it in full costume in Cuba at the Guantanamo Bay Chapel. We even gave a recitation of it on Maundy Thursday in Iraq with the enemy not far away. Of course, in the camp, everyone was in uniform and armed, and we didn’t bother posing like the painting, but thirteen people (including women) read the parts before we shared in Holy Communion. One would think simplifying it in this way would make it less memorable. One would be wrong. Enthusiastic to the nth degree, the Senior Psychiatrist with our unit asked me for his part the day before so he could memorize it. I told him that wasn’t necessary, but he was insistent. When it was his turn to present his monologue he stood up, placed his hands firmly on his hips and looked around, just as the script instructed him.
“I am Simon Peter,” he began. “I was a fisherman when my brother Andrew brought me to Jesus. Jesus looked at me and said ‘Your name shall be Cephas, meaning Rock or Stone‘. Maybe he saw already in me the faith and steadfastness that I would yearn for and which would take so long to grow. I was so headstrong and my impulsive spirit caused me to do and say many things for which I am now sorry. In the Garden of Gethsemane, when the mob came after Jesus, I drew my sword to protect him and cut off the ear of a slave.”
Now at this point in the script, the stage direction told him to draw his sword for emphasis, but he didn’t have a sword. So instead he drew his nine-millimeter pistol and waved it furiously in the air. With that, the congregation hit the deck, afraid that at any minute they might be taken out by a shrink. I winced and shook my head at him, and sheepishly, he holstered his weapon. Then he continued to speak, without missing a line.
When amateurs perform a liturgical drama, it should be no surprise that things could go wrong, stupid or crazy. But that doesn’t make their offering any less valuable or inspirational. The word “amateur” comes from the Latin “amator” which means “lover.” So those guys in silly beards and oversized dresses anxiously reciting lines that took weeks to memorize are doing it so the people they love can hear the word of God they love and draw ever closer to the God who is love. Perhaps in all our human frailty, that is our best.
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