Easter Mysteries

Most medievals were illiterate, so the faith was transmitted to them primarily through the preaching of the Church and through images.  Those images, in statuary, stained glass—and in theatre—still live and breathe today and still speak to us of the profound truths of the Christian faith. One of the great traditions of medieval life was therefore the “mystery play” in which allegorical tales of human existence such as Everyman or various dramatically embellished tales from Scripture were told.

Building on this tradition, a new play called Easter Mysteries will make its debut on theatre screens for an exclusive engagement on March 22, 2016.  Easter Mysteries is a modern take on two medieval mystery plays set to music. This biblically based oratorio-musical is two roughly one hour acts. The music, libretto and lyrics are by John O’Boyle, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer (La Cage aux Folles, 2011; Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike, 2013). Using the universal theme of death and resurrection, the first act is a passion play which moves through Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, his arrest, Peter’s struggle with faith and Jesus’ death. The second act revolves around Jesus’ Resurrection appearances, Peter’s restoration to faith, and Jesus’ Ascension.

As is the custom, both with Jewish midrash, medieval mystery plays, and modern drama, Easter Mysteries reinterprets iconic figures in human terms – ordinary people with hopes, dreams and fears, uncertain of what lies ahead.

For example, the apostles speak in contemporary English and think like moderns.  The Last Supper shows us a band of apostles who, like us, are not really taking seriously the possibility that Jesus really does say he is about to die.  They are too full of their own plans and too flushed with success from the Jesus Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem to believe it is all about to come down in smoking ruin.  They brag to each other about Jesus cleansing the Temple, cocksure that everything is leading to political triumph.  The Last Supper–dominated by the banter of the apostles and a sort of party atmosphere–is only occasionally punctuated by Jesus’ repeated warnings that all this is delusion and that he is about to be killed and the apostles scattered.  It’s a telling of the story that makes sense of how the apostles could, in the gospels, completely miss Jesus’ point as they argued with one another about who was the greatest.  And it challenges us too as we make our plans for Greatness and leave Jesus in the corner, quietly reminding us in his still, small voice that the Kingdom of Heaven is not achieved with the weapons of this world, but with the weapons of the Spirit.

Another interesting embellishment is Peter’s fraught relationship with two women.  Biblically, we know that Peter was married, but in this telling, his “wife” is merely his betrothed: a woman named Naomi whom he left to follow Jesus and who both loves him and is outraged at what she takes to be betrayal in pursuit of religious zealotry.  They meet by chance at the arrest of Jesus.  In a fine commentary on Jesus’ warning that his gospel will bring division to families and make the members of one’s own family our enemies, Naomi becomes the woman who, three times, denounces Peter as one of Jesus’ followers, prompting Peter to deny him three times before cockcrow.  The challenge to us, of course, is to ask how much we also compromise our faith to please those we love.

Peter also has a tense relationship with Mary Magdalene, due in part to her history as a “woman with a past” but also due to Peter’s own blustering lack of confidence.  It irks him that Jesus seems to confide things to her and favor her more than himself.  He frets (he claims) that Jesus’ reputation will be harmed by associating with her, but it is abundantly clear that his real fear is that she outranks him in terms of status.  To compensate, he makes huge declarations of undying loyalty accompanied by equally huge declarations about what Jesus will and will not forgive should Peter not keep his outsized promises.  In so doing, Peter becomes an image of how our own pride can often wind up replacing God and creating the temptation to despair.  After his denial of Christ, Peter comes near to pridefully imagining that his sin is so uniquely terrible that even God cannot forgive him.

Peter’s hostility toward Mary Magdalene is also on full display when she and not he is vouchsafed the first encounter both with the angels at the tomb of Jesus and with the Risen Jesus himself.  His petulant complaint demanding to know why angels should appear to her and his cruel mockery of the women when they return from the tomb shows a fully human and deeply insecure man whom Jesus treats, not with contempt but with the mercy Peter lacks.  In his threefold confession of faith in response to Jesus’ threefold question, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter is restored from what he thought, in his pride, was the unforgivable sin of his triple denial.

Another aspect that of the Passion story that is given a distinctly contemporary application is the figure of Judas Iscariot.  In an age of Eat Pray Love spirituality which imagines that all choices are good merely because we chose them and one can simply fly from one’s responsibilities at any moment without any consequences, Judas is shown as a figure who believes that once he gives his thirty pieces of silver back to the Temple priests who paid him, then all the evil he has done Jesus in betraying him will simply go away.

Similarly, the trio of judges (Caiaphas of the Sanhedrin, Pilate the Roman, and Herod Antipas) are a study in shared refusal of responsibility, each of them evading their blameworthiness for helping put Jesus to death with the words “I wash my hands of you” and finally handing him over to the decision of a mere mob.  Like Judas, they are past masters of the strangely contemporary habit of everybody agreeing that it is nobody’s fault even as they choose to put an innocent man to death.

Finally, one interesting and challenging aspect of the play is the discussion of the words “This is my body” and “This is my blood” at the Last Supper.  Like John, the playwright opts not to include what Catholics call a “Eucharistic institution narrative” but instead follows the Pauline line of thought in 1 Corinthians 10-12 which connects the idea of the Eucharistic Body of Christ with the ecclesial Body of Christ.  I think that, likely due to the fact that the author of the play is not Catholic (though I could be wrong), the idea of the Church as the Body of Christ is given undue priority over the Eucharist, but at the same time, Jesus’ insistence on the connection between his Body and Blood and us as members of his Body is one that is valuable and necessary for us to contemplate.

On the whole, Easter Mysteries is an interesting and often beautiful retelling of a story that, though told countless times, never gets old and reveals fresh perspectives with every new telling.

For more information please visit http://www.eastermysteries.com

Tickets for “Easter Mysteries” can be purchased by visiting www.FathomEvents.com or at participating theater box offices.

image: Jason Simon

Mark Shea

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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • noelfitz

    Like everything Mark Shea writes this is thought-provoking.
    It notes the importance of images in the medieval church. Perhaps the greatest of these were the cathedrals.
    I would like t know more of the ‘Eat Pray Love spirituality’. A comparison of the treatments of Judas and Peter is interesting. Was Judas badly treated? The restoration of Peter was not permanent, as in Antioch years later he seems to behave in the same cowardly way he did in the Gospel story. What do you think?

  • said she

    Re: Peter in Antioch. True, Peter was human. As we all are. All of us fail to live up to our potential. (Note how Paul regards himself in 1 Cor 4.) So, though we are forgiven, it isn’t “permanent”. None of us will be perfected this side of Heaven.

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