Somehow, they got permission to stage a Passion Play in Trafalgar Square yesterday afternoon (Good Friday). I went to the dress rehearsal at noon. It was a wonderful production. The rain held off until the trial of Jesus; and by the crucifixion the deluge was biblical in its proportions. I was perishing with five layers, a woolly hat, and an umbrella. I dread to think what it was like for the half-naked actors playing Christ and the two thieves.
Anyone who follows this blog will know that I particularly enjoy those moments of ‘liminality’ (being at the threshold), when two worlds meet or when two lives overlap; borderlands, bridges, piers. Three moments like this have stayed with me.
At the Last Supper scene, Jesus broke a huge loaf of bread; and as soon as the tables were cleared away a great flock of pigeons descended to fight over the crumbs. Trafalgar Square reasserted itself, and the historical play was brought right into the present moment.
Then, in the chaos of the walk to Calvary, with the actors and spectators already moving amongst each other, one of the soldiers seized on a man from the ‘audience’ and forced him to carry Christ’s Cross. An ordinary looking guy with a rucksack and a pair of white trainers. He was an obvious plant, but it worked. It pushed the story-telling over the threshold of the ‘stage’ and into the real world. Like that Woody Allen film when someone steps out of the screen into the cinema. (Or is it the other way round? Help please!)
And right at the end, after the Resurrection, Jesus stepped through the crowd in his white garments as the audience was applauding. He didn’t take a bow. He walked up towards the National Gallery, across the top of Leicester Square, and into the streets beyond. I followed him, while the post-production congratulations were taking place in the square behind us.
That image of Jesus turning the corner into Charing Cross Road is what made the whole play for me: the figure of Christ, walking into the madness of London; without the protection of a director, a cast, a script, an appreciative audience; fading into the blur of billboards and buses and taxis; an unknown man walking into the crowd…
In case anyone is interested, here is my (very short) homily from the Good Friday liturgy yesterday:
We spend our whole lives trying to find a way out: out of the difficulties, the darkness, the uncertainty, the pain. And we forget what is happening at the heart of Holy Week: that Jesus has found a way in.
He is still the High Priest. But instead of waiting for us to bring our gifts to him, he leaves the Temple and comes to us. He wanders the streets, like a relative scouring the ruins of a devastated city, looking for loved ones. Coming across a home, he doesn’t just stop at the front door and listen. He goes into the kitchen, out to the backyard, up to the attic, and down into the cellar. And finding someone, he crouches beside them and says, ‘It’s okay. You’re not alone. I’m here.’ So the terror is over even before the rescue is complete.
Good Friday is not the end of the Christian story. But Jesus can’t take you to heaven unless he has first taken you to himself. This is the Cross: That he has stepped into our world, into our lives, into the depths, in order to bring his light.
No one, ever, can say ‘He is not here’. No one, ever, can say ‘I have gone too far’. No one, ever, can say ‘There is no way out’ — because Jesus has found a way in.
You can see the same company perform a fuller version of the Life of Christ at Wintershall this summer. Details here.
Happy Easter! (Our Vigil Mass is not until 11pm this evening…)