IF YOU’VE COME WITH ME this far and read previous instalments, you’ll know that I’m taking part in The Nottingham Passion theatre production at St Mary’s in the Lace Market this Easter. You’ll also know which role I’m playing, and that I’m finding this role to be quite the challenge.
This might sound odd, but I struggle to say the words: ‘I’ve been cast as Jesus.’
I meant it when I wrote previously that being given the chance to portray Jesus was among the privileges of my life. It’s not been an easy experience so far, but with three weeks of rehearsals under my belt it feels like I’m finding my feet now. Fear and uncertainty have now given way to some self-confidence, though I worry that the Jesus voice which appears to be coming out of me sounds a bit like Russell Crowe in the movie Gladiator.
As rehearsals move into the church proper, and I stand there pretending to be him (not Russell Crowe, Jesus), and I try to articulate the utterly beautiful words he said (again not Russell Crowe, Jesus), I can’t believe it’s me who’s doing this. It doesn’t feel real yet. Maybe that’s why I struggle to say the words: ‘I’ve been cast as Jesus.’
Please don’t think these are just the outpourings of some blithering old luvvie. This is truly the way I’m feeling – and this next sentence is a simple, objective statement of fact.
Powerful stuff is happening in rehearsals right now.
Such. Powerful. Stuff.
And everyone feels it, I think. Not just me.
I don’t know how to process it properly. I’ve been doing this performing arts thing for more than thirty years, and this is unlike anything I’ve ever done. I come away from rehearsals on a Tuesday and a Thursday feeling energised and exhausted, euphoric and numb, bewildered and clear-headed, filled up and empty. It feels like I don’t know what I’m doing but that I’ve never felt more ready. I’m a walking paradox.
The best I can manage right now when I speak about any of this to anyone out loud is: ‘I’ve been cast as a certain gentleman from Nazareth.’
And people go: ‘Oh. Jesus?‘
And I go: ‘Er. Yes.’
And people go: ‘That’s cool. How’s it going?’
And I go: ‘It’s complicated.’
Then I worry that if they read these blogs, they’ll avoid the subject next time they see me or avoid me in general, because they’ll think I’m a loony.
Oi! Keep that thought to yourself.
By way of recap, if you’ve read blog one, you’ll know all about where I am with my faith, and how being cast as Jesus has pushed me into trying to see (and show) how the events of Passion Week might have felt from the perspective of the central figure in all of it.
If you’ve read blog two, you’ll know something about what passion plays are, and read my take on how Jesus may have experienced the events of Palm Sunday, all this filtered through the lens of an honest performer seeking to tell his character’s story as truthfully as possible.
If you’ve read both blogs you’ll know that, while I’m a Christian, this series is aimed at anyone and everyone. You’ll know there are some rules of engagement too, designed to ensure that you and I make our way through this whole thing unscathed. Here are those rules again:
- I’m not going to try to answer all (any?) of life’s big questions for you, though I hope there may be something in what I’m writing which prompts you to explore some of these questions more deeply;
- I’m not going to preach to you – I have a faith, but this stuff is aimed at everyone, whatever their point of view;
- There is no pre-planned structure to this series which ends with me ‘seeing the light’ through my experience of playing Jesus. There’ll be no fluffy, gift-wrapped testimony from me at the end. That would be so twee, and perhaps a little cynical. So, to be clear. I genuinely don’t know how these pieces of writing will develop;
- I’m not about to get all ‘pretentious artist’ on you. I’m not that person, and I don’t do this acting lark for a living. I’m a part-time writer and performer who sincerely just wants to do the best job he can, as honestly as he can.
All of which brings us hurtling to the meat of our third instalment, which is all about ‘angry Jesus,’ or as my fellow Marvel fans might put it: ‘Jesus? Smash.’ Our focus is the scene where Jesus cleanses the temple on the Monday of Passion Week, the next main event after Palm Sunday in the chronology of that first Easter.
I’d describe the way I’m tackling this as: ‘Rage and restraint.‘
Hey! Would you believe it? That sounds like a paradox too. It’s almost like I set this up earlier in the blog. Let me explain the ‘rage’ bit first.
Anyone with at least a passing acquaintance of the Old Testament knows that God has ways of expressing his displeasure which are much less restrained than what the New Testament records Jesus as doing in the temple in Jerusalem on the Monday of Passion Week.
I once wrote a sketch for a comedy show called Traces Of Nuts in which Noah has a long list of creatures he hasn’t found two of for his ark yet, and decides to order them in from a catalogue to save time.
My good chums Jon Wood (as Noah) and Stephan Bessant (as catalogue Steve) make light of the watery apocalypse described in the book of Exodus here, but my basic observation is that when God gets angry in the Old Testament, he has a range of options at his disposal which go far wider than turning over some tables in a temple and forcibly ejecting some merchants and money changers.
As I’m sure you’ll know, Noah (as played in the movie Noah by Russell Crowe, who won an Oscar for Gladiator in which he might sound a bit like me when I do my Jesus voice) was only required to build an ark in the first place because God was so angry with everyone he’d decided to flood the earth and wipe out the human race. Oof.
The options available to Old Testament God therefore include the awesome power to bring about actual apocalypse (though we can chill out a bit now because of the rainbow promise) and the power to bring about at least ten horrific plagues (water turning to blood, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the killing of firstborn children) as documented in the story of Moses, also from the book of Exodus.
There is even an unofficial eleventh plague if by Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat we include the event which began an entire lifetime’s output by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Don’t ‘at’ me. I’m joking about Andrew Lloyd Webber (*1).
Put simply, you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of any God who could do the things we see him do in the Old Testament, or any God who could allow the bringing into being of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
I’m obviously still joking about Andrew Lloyd Webber (*2).
So, in preparing to play the character of Jesus, I have to assume that this very same God must be incarnate somewhere in the person of the apoplectic Messiah rebuking those present in Jerusalem’s temple, a man whose followers believe to have been both fully human and fully God.
Though accounts of miracles are light on the ground during Passion Week, our passion play script shows Jesus healing the Roman guard whose ear is severed in the garden of Gethsemane, and there is (of course) the not insignificant matter of the resurrection. So, it’s clear that Jesus is a man with extraordinary, supernatural power, a man (based on what he says as he’s arrested) secure in the knowledge that God would ‘unleash all his angels’ to defend him if necessary.
And a man with a direct pipeline to such immense power could do something altogether more devastating, altogether more destructive, to those defiling the temple on the Monday of Passion Week, to those turning a house of prayer into a bandit’s cave.
But Jesus doesn’t do this, because he tempers rage with restraint.
Jesus was a human being who knew all about human emotion. He intimately understood human pain and human struggle. In common with Jesus, because we’re also human beings, you and I are capable of rage and restraint.
A neuroscientist might tell us that when we rage, we’re unlikely to be in control of our actions because the primitive, emotionally driven and impulsive part of our brain has taken charge. There’s even a model which describes this phenomenon in a book called The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters, which is the last paradox I’ll mention in this blog in case you get annoyed.
When you and I show restraint, we’re more in control of what we’re doing. When we show restraint we might exercise better self-discipline. We might moderate or restrict our actions. We might even demonstrate compassion, show mercy, or practice forgiveness. None of this is easy, particularly those mercy and forgiveness parts.
Now, imagine such powerful internal conflict, but on a cosmic scale, magnified exponentially in a human being with the might and power of God inside him. What does restraint look like in such a man when he experiences the primitive, impulsive, fully human emotion of rage? The turning over of mere furniture ought to feel like getting off lightly, a miraculous escape, to anyone provoking the wrath of such a man. It could easily have been much, much worse for the merchants and the money changers.
And when the man shouting at you is the most emotionally intelligent, most insightful person to have ever walked the earth, a man who hears people at a different frequency, sees people on a different wavelength, a man who sees the potential for unity and harmony in places where others only see difference and division (see blog one where I unpack all of this), a man who realises that people simply do not know what they’re doing, who sees that people are manifestly incapable of any radical change if left to their own devices, then restraint for that man is absolutely compassion, absolutely mercy, and the pointing of those people to something else.
Something higher, something better. Something much more valuable than material wealth. Something a bit like treasure, hidden in a field.
Jesus knows the people of Jerusalem can’t help themselves. It angers him greatly but he understands how they’ve arrived here. He also knows, as a prophet, how it ends for them (see blog two where I write about this). What Jesus sees in the temple breaks his heart because he knows that people, who are so beloved to him, can be better than this if only they knew, if only they realised.
Jesus knows the people have become so gaslit, so manipulated, so corrupted by the world in which they live and the powers in charge of that world, that they no longer comprehend what truth is. In speaking truth to power, as Jesus does to those assembled in the temple, he seeks to restore power to truth. As the scene in our show progresses, something destructive gives way, through mercy and compassion, to something constructive. Jesus represents such a radical shift in how God seeks to relate to people.
In trying to consider what the events of Passion Week look like from God’s perspective, I now realise that a huge part of God’s perspective involves explicitly looking at things from our perspective – as a person walking among us.
Jesus knows the world is broken, that people are broken, and that rage, punishment and retribution offer no route to salvation at all. The cleansing of the temple feels like a major turning point as Old Testament God gives way, through Jesus, to another, better, more relational way of dealing with people.
While the words aren’t spoken in our production, we know from the Bible that Jesus famously says: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,’ even as he hangs on a cross, looking down on the people dividing up his clothes by casting lots. This feels like an extraordinary example of restraint to me, when surely only rage would feel appropriate.
So! All of the above to ponder in getting ready for the cleansing of the temple scene. Maybe I’m just overthinking it, and I need to be careful I don’t go all ‘method’ on you.
Too late! I’ve just thrown a table through a window (*3).
I’ll expand more on other aspects of Jesus’ character as this series develops, and we move onto the next events of Passion Week. Next up, it’s the Last Supper.
Once again, thank you very much for coming with me this far.
(*1) = I’m not, though.
(*2) = I’m not, though.
(*3) = I didn’t really (*4).
(*4) = It was a chair.
copyright (c) carterbloke, 2023
Links – Nottingham Passion
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