We ended up on stage by accident. A friend had dragged me to the theater in college, which wasn’t really my interest. I went for the unvirtuous reason of extra credit. The play was Shakespeare’s "Pericles." I did not know the play; nor did I really know Shakespeare as I always gritted through his tangled, Elizabethan idiom at school and could never understand what the fuss was about.
“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare. The company that performed the play took this literally. They had constructed an additional floor over the auditorium’s lower seats, most of the theater. You could sit and watch the play from the few seats in the balcony. Or you could end up in the standing room only section down below among the actors. So not only was I going to an unfamiliar play in a language that purported to be English, I was going to have to stand the whole time.
As the play unfolded the actors expertly directed the audience. We didn’t stand so much as continuously move in and among the action of the play. We were the crowd. We were the public. No passive watching. We interacted. What had once been dry word on the page became something breathing and alive. We were a part of the world of the play.
The theological word for this kind of action is incarnation. What was once written becomes real in a new way. What was once word becomes flesh.
This is how Christians understand Jesus. The God who was once known through the announcement of the law and the proclamation of prophets becomes flesh in the person of Jesus.
There’s a parallel that happens for us, too. We are people who believe certain things about God. But that’s just the beginning of faith. We hope that the way we live reflects those beliefs so that, over time, we start to resemble Jesus in our own lives. That’s how we enter the Gospel story. The Gospel isn’t just listening. It’s doing. We are a part of the action.
Holy Week begins on Sunday. Churches around the world will mark some of the climactic moments of the Gospel with a well-rehearsed progression of stories: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter.
On Palm Sunday the church will remember when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adoring crowds who waved palm branches and hailed him as a coming king.
Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning command. On Maundy Thursday we’ll hear the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and how he commanded them to love one another.
Good Friday follows Jesus all the way to the cross.
And Easter Sunday announces the good news that Jesus is risen and has broken the hold of death.
The stories are like familiar friends that greet us every year. With every repetition we learn something new, and maybe we encounter God in a meaningful and profound way. It’s like we’ve entered the story ourselves and noticed the ways our lives intersect with the Gospel — how we inhabit the stories, too.
On Palm Sunday our church reads the whole story together, from Jesus' triumphal entry through his death on the cross. Different members of the church voice the parts — Jesus and Peter; Judas and Pilate; priests, soldiers and servants. But everyone has a part. The congregation joins in, too.
The people welcome Jesus into Jerusalem with their line, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
When the city of Jerusalem asks who it is, they confess: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
And when Pontius Pilate asks what to do with Jesus, they respond, “Let him be crucified!”
You feel the line differently when you have to say it. You understand the joy of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. You know that hope that comes from calling this Jesus a prophet. You experience the rejection of Jesus differently when you remember that he came for you, too.
The tension hangs in the air until Easter. Jesus emerges from the tomb. “The Lord is risen! He is risen indeed!” What was once written becomes real in a new way. What was once word becomes flesh again.
We tell it every year. We say to Jesus, “Encore!”
Jesus says to us, “Follow me.”
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.