Great storytellers understand the power of omission. In the best horror movies, the killer lurks in the shadows. Hemingway always said the greater weight of his stories lay under the surface. Martin Luther, to steer the thought closer to our subject, found the proliferation of icons in Roman Catholicism to be a distraction from an authentic and personal spiritual experience. This comes to mind with the Reformed Church’s Tenebrae Service, a Passion Play in which the actors and musicians are concealed in the rear balcony. The sanctuary dims as successive rows of candles are snuffed out, until the moment of Jesus’s death, when the candle on the chancel which represents the presence of Christ in the church is removed, and, in total darkness, a bell tolls 33 times, for each year of his life. Then the candle and cross are returned and attendees solemnly file out. Everyone knows the story has a happy ending, but the audience is denied instant gratification; instead, the gravity of the death of a peaceful teacher, cheered on by an angry mob that welcomed him into the city only days earlier, is allowed to wash over the audience.
“It’s three days of reflection, of really going inside ourselves,” said Rev. Terry O’Brien of the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. “That week of Holy Week is the darkness, the evil in human nature. To think that somebody would turn like that against Jesus; that’s not only a dark moment, that’s an evil moment. As we journey with Jesus to the cross it’s an opportunity to reflect on where we can do better in our own journey.”
Why did the people of Jerusalem turn on him?
“Jesus didn’t come in the kind of king or messiah that they were looking for,” said O’Brien. “They were looking for a conqueror, on a horse with a sword. Here you have someone coming in whose message was love and peace, who came in to conquer by love and not by force. Have we ever in our civilization gone without conflict? We seem to thrive on conflict. We’re not perfect, we’re imperfect.”
On the face of it, the Passion can be seen as a tale of the madness of crowds. But it’s deeper than that for Christians. The sacrifice is intimate— He died for your sins. In a spiritual experience, you let Jesus into your heart. And so although the church functions as a community and all denominations of Christianity are organized as such, every true believer seeks a personal experience. For some, that involves picturing a beatific bearded man. For others, that image might be different, or it might be more of a feeling; a sense of something benevolent tending the light at the end of the tunnel, the reason why doing good makes us feel good, or an ecstatic experience in which we shrug off our sense of self like an old sweater and mingle with the eternal.
“Nobody knows exactly what these individuals looked like,” said O’Brien. “There are images ingrained in us not because of historical data, but by culture. It’s beneficial, being that this is 2,000 years later, that we allow ourselves the images we create in our own minds.”
The production benefits from connections made by Terry and his wife Jeanne Jones when they were part of the theater world in New York City. Six of the 12 members of the cast are working Broadway actors, and it makes a difference. Their characterizations are vivid and they project well, speaking and singing. Steve and Terri Massardo of John St. Jam coordinate the musicians, who are also top notch. Jeanne is the director and Lorraine Nelson Wolf is music director.
Of course regular church-goers are well aware the service is coming up. The intended audience is wider, hence the outreach to local newspapers and radio stations.
“It’s a way of reaching someone who may have not been reached previously through a traditional worship service,” said O’Brien. “I think the message is that regardless of your notions or preconceived ideas about the church or (what) a worship experience might be, that this is an opportunity to be drawn into something more powerful than any of us alone could experience. And the church can be a deeply moving experience.”
Tenebrae Service, Thursday, April 17, 7:30 p.m., Reformed Church, Main St.