When I was in ninth grade, my church’s youth group performed an Easter play. Actually, it was a pre-Easter play because it was only about the betrayal and death of Jesus, not his rising. We performed it on the Friday before Easter. “It’s called a Tenebrae service,” said our pastor. “It means service of darkness.”
I got to play Jesus, probably because I had the longest hair of any of the guys in my class.
Since I was Jesus I had quite a few lines, but the only one I still remember is this: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” I actually had to say, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” because our denomination still used the 380-year-old King James translation of the Bible.
Our church was over one hundred years old and had rows of looming stained glass windows rising to the ceiling. During our evening rehearsals they looked like black towers lining the walls. It was cold that spring; the radiators in the church weren’t strong enough to chase away the chill in the air.
At our last dress rehearsal, I stepped onstage barefoot and wearing my bedsheet. Jesus didn’t actually die wearing a bedsheet; I’m pretty sure he was naked at the time. But if our church wasn’t even ready for a twentieth-century translation of the Bible, we certainly weren’t ready for a naked ninth grader with skinny legs standing next to the pulpit yelling, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”
I cleared my throat and called out to the empty, chilly sanctuary, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” My words bounced off the black windows.
My voice was changing at the time, and I probably sounded more like a five-year-old girl at a tea party than a thirty-three-year-old convicted criminal being tortured to death.
The pastor cringed. “Try it again.”
“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” I said as deeply as I could, sounding more like Batman this time than a little girl.
“We’ve been through this before, Steve. Say it like you mean it.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.” I didn’t really think he should be arguing with Jesus like that. Judas coughed. The girl playing Mary rolled her eyes at me. I think she was supposed to be my mother, but it was hard to tell. There were a bunch of Marys in the play.
“You’ve been abandoned by God,” said my pastor, pacing in front of the pews. “You’re about to die. You’ve been deserted by all your friends. You’re alone on the cross suffering a horrible death. Say it like that. Like you mean it.”
“Right.” I paused for a moment. “Um, do I really have to say ‘why hast Thou forsaken me?’ It sounds kinda old-fashioned.”
He took a long, slow breath and said, “Yes.”
I sighed. “Okay, okay . . .” I cleared my throat. “Ahem. My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
My pastor shook his head and rubbed his temples. I told him I was doing the best I could and that’s all I could do anyhow and I can’t help it if I’m not the best actor in the world and if he wanted someone who was perfect he should have chosen someone else to play the part. I had no idea at the time how true that statement was.
All the other kids were waiting for me to just get it right so we could get on with rehearsal and get it all over with. Judas had lost interest in what was happening onstage and was busy flirting with Mary, who was pretending to be totally annoyed by him like ninth-grade girls do when they really like someone. I’d heard they were going out, which was too bad for me since I kind of liked her. For a minute I forgot all about being rejected by God and thought about being rejected by Mary. Man, she’s cute. I’d love to go out with her—wait a minute, no, she’s my mother.
I was beginning to get very confused right about then.
The pastor looked at his watch. “Let’s try it again.”
“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” I called again.
I never did get that line right.
Honestly, I don’t even remember saying the line in the service. I guess I’ve blocked that out of my memory. I remember the darkness, though, swelling around us as the other kids from my class snuffed out one candle after the other. A deep, hungry darkness filled the church as the parishioners left in silence and I went back downstairs to change into my blue jeans and go home to play video games.
And I remember that day in rehearsal, standing in front of the empty church dressed in athletic shorts and a bedsheet, talking like Shakespeare, fantasizing about Mary while my pastor tried to get me to realize how the words must have sounded the first time they were said—coming from the throat of Jesus.
A few years ago, I walked into the living room just as the movie my wife was watching ended. She was sitting on the couch crying.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Is something wrong?”
She shook her head.
“Then why are you crying?”
She shrugged. Then she looked up at me sweetly and said, “I love you.”
I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on. They never prepare you for moments like these in premarital counseling.
“Okay,” I said, somewhat suspiciously. “I love you too?” That had to be the right answer. When you’re married, that’s always the right answer.
Then she patted the couch next to her as the credits began to scroll up the TV screen, and I sat down. She snuggled close, dabbing at her eyes. “I guess you had to see the whole thing.”
I put my arm around her. “Yeah, I guess so,” I mumbled, but of course I didn’t really think I would have cried. Not during a chick flick. And even if I did, I wouldn’t have let her see me. Guys have to be careful about things like that.
Either way, when you miss most of the story and only walk in for the finale, you’re not usually moved to tears.
During my last year of college I worked as a wilderness guide for a state correctional program for at-risk youth. We worked for six weeks and then had three weeks off. One of our trips coincided with Easter. I was in charge of logistics that week, and since the rest of the team was hiking nearby, I asked my boss for Easter Sunday off so I could go to church.
“Oh, are you a Christian?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, why don’t you come with us—with my wife and I?”
I shrugged. “Sure. Okay. Why not.”
As you remember, the church I’d grown up attending was really old and traditional. It had lots of organ music, candles, chanting, stained glass windows, and Jesus in a bedsheet. At my boss’s church the closest things to stained glass windows were the tattoos on the arms of the greeters. There wasn’t any organ, just an electric guitar and a drum set that took up half the stage. And the people didn’t chant. They rocked out. They even brought their own tambourines. And they danced. People at my church never danced. At his church, the service felt like a wedding celebration. At mine, it sort of had the feel of a funeral. His church didn’t even have a building; they just rented a room on the campus of Southern Illinois University.
The sermon wasn’t all that memorable, but the joy of the people was. And that day something happened to me. Jesus didn’t show up in a bedsheet. Somewhere between the dancing and the testimonies, he showed up in my heart.
I’d been telling people my whole life I was a Christian. I’d gone to church every Sunday as long as I could remember. I knew the story, or I thought I did. But I’d never been moved to tears. But that day, at last, it all started to make sense. For the first time, I began to see the sweep of the story, not just isolated scenes here or there. The whole story finally clicked together. Oh, so that’s what it means.
I wouldn’t say I didn’t believe in God before that day; I think on some level I did. I’d accepted his reality but had never really embraced his presence. I knew about him, but at my boss’s charismatic church on the Easter Sunday of my twenty-first year, I began to fall in love with God.
I finally realized what those words “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” must have really sounded like back when Jesus died. Those words were spoken from the center of the greatest darkness of all—the darkness of a soul abandoned by God. I’d been aching my whole life to believe in something that ultimately mattered. That day, I didn’t ache anymore.
I think I might have even cried. Just a little bit. But don’t tell my wife.
Easter was a love story after all. I’d never seen that before. And I was there, in the arms of God, in the final scene.
For some people the true meaning of Easter gets lost somewhere in the labyrinth of religious tradition. That’s the way it was for me. I knew the right words to say, the right time to stand up and sit down during the service, the proper way to act when a full platter of money was passed in front of you, but God didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of my life. I would just come home each week and set my religion on a shelf again until the next service. A couple years ago I wrote a poem about it.
come here, god, i’d like to keep you in this little shoe box. i’d like to pull you out whenever i need you and put you away whenever i don’t. come on. climb in.
there you go . . . now, let me just slide this lid over the top and . . .okay, now, i’ll just set you here in the closet and keep you handy for a rainy day . . .hmm . . . i have to say, i didn’t think you’d fit so easily. i actually thought i might have to really pound on you to squeeze you in there.
imagine that. pounding on you to make you fit! ha. how funny is that?
well, g-bye. you be a good little god, now. don’t go climbing out of your box. i’ll be back to feed you later.
That day at my boss’s church, Jesus showed me that I was the one boxed in. And he was the one lifting the lid to finally set me free.
For other people, the story of Easter has gotten overshadowed in the secularism of political correctness gone amuck. We’re not supposed to wish people “Merry Christmas!” anymore, even though Christmas is a nationally recognized holiday. I suppose Jesus doesn’t belong in Easter either. We can celebrate the spring equinox together, maybe. That should be okay, but Jesus rising from the dead is taking things too far.
The bunny has upstaged the rabbi and stolen the show. The search for plastic eggs has replaced the search for a missing body. Easter has evolved into just another nice, harmless, spineless, little holiday with the climax being a bunch of snot-nosed kids fighting over a piece of chocolate, when it’s supposed to be about a wrestling match between life and death, a cosmic struggle between good and evil.
Easter has lots of lilies and spring hats and piles of fake, green, curly plastic grass stuff, but none of that has anything to do with the raw reality of a bloody cross and the final hope of the empty tomb.
The truth is, most people just aren’t moved by the Easter story anymore.
It’s like we’ve walked in at the end of the movie and we just don’t get what all the fuss is about.
“Is something wrong?”
The people who are crying shake their heads.
“Then why are you crying?”
To understand Easter, to really get it, I think you need to experience the whole story—enter the darkened theater, take your seat, and watch the tale unfold. Because the empty tomb doesn’t make sense without the cross, the cross doesn’t make sense without the manger in Bethlehem, and the manger doesn’t make sense without the Garden of Eden.
It’s all one story. And only when you finally untangle it, see its scope, and enter it for yourself do you realize that the story has finally entered and at last untangled you.