We Were There: A holy week drama reflecting the experiences of those surrounding Jesus

Can we ever truly experience the grief of Good Friday? We know the ending and rejoice with our Savior that it is a happy one come Easter morn, but that very knowledge keeps us from fully realizing the tragedy that Christ’s death brought to those who lived through it. Whatever their understanding of his ministry, whatever hopes and dreams they had built for the future, all came crashing down before the stark and ugly death he suffered on the cross. Leader, friend, teacher, son—all seemed irretrievably lost. Christ called from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” voicing the cries of many hearts that day.

By listening in as five touched by Jesus in his last hours discuss this tragedy, this abandonment, perhaps we can understand in some small measure just how devastating Christ’s death was, and, consequently, how indescribably wonderful his resurrection and our salvation is.

Journey with these five for awhile. Pass through their grief. Let it shape you as it did them so that, come Easter morn, you too can know the full joy of Christ’s resurrection

— Bulletin note by Marla Ehlers

Song

“From Heaven You Came” (Graham Kendrick, in Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 150)

Male soloist sings stanzas 1-3; congregation sings chorus after each stanza.

[Angry and frustrated, Judas storms onto the stage. Throughout, Judas battles between what faith he has and his doubt.]

Judas: Wrong! This is all wrong! You Pharisees got it all wrong! He was supposed to lead our revolution, bring about our salvation from these Gentiles. He was to be the spark, the catalyst. He was the man, the Messiah! We were ready—the people were ready! That angry crowd in the garden, Peter had his sword out in an instant. Took an ear, Peter did! Took an ear . . .

But he rebuked them. “No more of this!” he called . . . and the others listened. Our moment had finally arrived; a little blood, a little persuasion, and the crowds would have turned, followed him to a new world. But he stopped them, even healed that dog’s ear. Then he asked, “Am I leading a rebellion?” “Yes!” I wanted to shout. “Yes! Again and again you’ve told us so. Now act on it!” But instead he surrendered meekly.

And we, we twelve, fled.

Again and again. How many times had he told us he had come to free us? How many? “‘He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners’” he read in the temple, and then he declared, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” But the Romans are still here. The nations press upon us. We are not free! He is a son of David—how often did he say he would rebuild his Father’s kingdom? Imagine! Our boundaries stretching to those set by Solomon, our land free of outsiders. Once again, a promised land flowing with milk and honey.

But again and again he missed the moment.

Not four days ago he mounted a colt, as it was prophesied. He rode into the city, as it was prophesied. He came to them as their king, as it was prophesied. The crowds shouted to him: “Hosanna! Hosanna to the Son of David! Hosanna in the highest!” They all knew the signs. They knew the Scripture. “Hosanna!” they called, “Save us! Save us!” And you leaders, you Pharisees, you knew too: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” you called, terrified of Roman wrath. But he knew where we stood: “I tell you,” he answered, “if they keep quiet, the very stones will cry out.” Yes! At last! At last we were on the path to freedom.

But then—again—he faltered. We were on the path to the temple’s east gate, the gate everyone knows our Messiah will come through. The crowd, frenzied, urged him to act on his claims and fulfill the prophecy. They deafened us with their shouts of “Save us!” But he, he rode past the east gate without so much as a glance and stopped instead at the northern gate—a gate defiled by sheep’s dung and the stench of death. Only death comes from the north. Only sacrifices pass through that door—only meek lambs being led to the slaughter.

And tonight. We gathered for the Passover and our “king,” our “son of David,” our “Messiah” stripped, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed our feet. What sort of king plays at being a servant? What sort of savior kneels before his disciples and washes the filth from their feet? Again and again he had missed the moment, but it was then, when I saw him groveling before us, that I realized I must act. I—We needed to know if he was the Messiah. If he refused, well then I would force the issue. I would spark the revolution, and we would see if we had offered our faith foolishly.

It was easy enough. You Pharisees were looking for a way to bring him down; we all knew that. A word in the right ear, a plan whispered discreetly, and you thought you had eliminated a problem while I, I knew I had started something bigger than any of us could imagine. And to think! [Laughing while pulling out his money bag.] To think you hypocritical fools paid thirty pieces of silver to start the revolution you so fear! You Pharisees are the first to fill our coffers!

[Judas’s anger and frustration begin to turn to dismay and despair.] But it all went wrong. There is no revolt. He has been “eliminated” . . . or will be soon. You! You have condemned him to die. Through my word, my kiss, you have caught, tried, and condemned him. [Becomes increasingly desperate to convince them and exonerate himself.] He knew, you know. He knew what I planned! I don’t know how, I don’t know when he learned, but at supper he told us all that one would betray him—a strong word, but I thought then that he understood. After all, he handed me the bread dipped in wine. He must have understood my plan, he must have known the test before him, he must have! So why didn’t he act? Why?

[Throughout the previous speech, Judas has been toying with his money bag.] And now he is condemned. [Angry and scornful.] You! You

condemn—no, it was I. [In his scorn and anger on “You! You condemn,” he accidentally drops the money bag, pauses, carefully picks it up with a change of heart and recognition of his own guilt. The horror of his deeds hits him.] O Almighty King in Heaven, what have I done? He’s just a man, an innocent man! And instead of rebellion, I have his blood on my hands. Instead of a Messiah, thirty pieces of silver. They are no use now. What good is a revolution without a leader? He can’t save us from the grave.

Oh, I have sinned. Betrayal he called it? Yes, betrayal and blood for thirty pieces of silver. [Judas flings the coins to the ground in despair and exits. Blackout.]

String reprise of the chorus from “From Heaven You Came”

Silence

Song

“What Wondrous Love” PsH 379, PH 85, TH 261, TWC 212

Female soloist sings stanzas 1 and 2; the congregation sings stanza 3.

[Blackout. The lights come up on Mary, who is caught in the crowd before Pilate, a lone voice of dissension in that mob.]

Mary: Crucify him? Crucify him?! No! [Anguished.] Noooo! [Defiant and desperate.] Kill Barabbas! Kill Barabbas! Jesus! We want Jesus! [Sobbing, quieter.] Jesus! Can’t they see? Are they so blind? [She singles one out from the crowd to tell her story.] Wait! You! Yes, you! Don’t call for Barabbas—don’t you see? Release Barabbas, release that murderer? And let one so good, so kind, so loving die? So loving . . .

I never thought I could be loved, could even know what love is. [Laughs self-consciously, for she is embarrassed to admit and still awed by her

healing.] After all, when you share space with a half-dozen demons there’s not much room for yourself, much less love. Some people feel alone in a crowd, but I always felt crowded when alone. To have one thought, one emotion wholly my own seemed so impossible—to step outside the horror that was my soul so beyond my strength—that whatever love tried to touch me was lost in the confusion and darkness.

Oh, I tried, tried to find emotion, to feel something, anything! My father’s wealth was at my disposal. It’s amazing what money can bring—hosts of feasts, clothes, jewels, suitors aplenty, all vowing dying devotion. There was one—what was his name?—well, one at least, that I persuaded myself to believe in. At least when he was near there was a glimmer, a slight shimmer in the darkness that imprisoned me.

But even that one tired at last of forcing his way through my night, of beating against the bars my demons constructed, of trying to fill the emptiness that consumed me. I scarcely noticed when he slipped away forever. By then I scarcely noticed anything. Music and laughter at feasts sounded harsh and hollow; the finest, softest fabrics rubbed like sackcloth; gems dulled at my glance; my suitors’ vows rang false. And I, I too had slipped away from myself, seemingly forever.

Until he touched me. With one look he pierced the darkness. With one word he shattered the bars and lifted me out. “Mary,” he said, and in calling me by name, he found me. Me, not the layers of filth that had obscured me, not the shadows of being that had masqueraded as me. He found me. That little kernel he found warmed to his touch, began to unfurl in his light, blossomed under the fullness of his love.

It was at another, interminable feast. Who would have thought? People came and went, musicians played, food appeared on my plate, and I picked at it. Then I felt his presence. A gentle finger brushed my shoulder, causing me to look at him. And for once, I looked, really looked. Looked beyond the walls of my own making and saw. Saw how his words sang more clearly and melodiously than any song; saw how his love for all caressed more softly than silk; saw how his actions shone with purity; saw how his vows rang true.

And in the seeing, I saw myself. Saw my value as he did, though it lay buried beneath depression and hopelessness and all the other demons that crowded me. Saw my worth that through his love shone brightly in any darkness. A value and a worth that I thought I could find in others as well, by following him.

[Suddenly remembers where she is.] But who saw that value just now? A treasure immeasurably great, and they blindly cast it away for that, that murderer, that monster, that beast caught in such a foul darkness, such an evil night of his own making, one blacker than any I ever knew. What light could shine through that? What love could touch Barabbas’s soul?

Unless . . . I never thought I could be loved, but I am. He loved—loves me. He does! [Blackout.]

String reprise of “What Wondrous Love”

Silence

Song

“Ah, Holy Jesus, How Have You Offended” PsH 386, PH 93, RL 285, TH 258, TWC 231

Male soloist sings stanza 1; the congregation sings stanza 2.

[The music continues (instruments only) as Pilate enters, washes his hands, and then dries them before the crowd. He begins speaking almost as soon as the music ends, more annoyed and amused than angry. He is cruel and patronizing, but fearful—of Caesar, his wife’s dreams, and Jesus. Something about Jesus nags at Pilate like a sore tooth.]

Pilate: Fools! What fools! And he’s the biggest of them all. A fool and a dreamer. Any fool, myself included, could see he is innocent of these charges. Granted, my dear, there is something about him, despite his mild face and meek demeanor. I wonder . . . perhaps your dreams do speak truth, do bear heeding. . . . It’s his certainty of purpose, his very inner stillness that commands. But sedition? Rebellion? More likely he offended their sense of power and threatened their purses than offended the empire and threatened Roman rule. But these Jews are completely incomprehensible, completely pig-headed. They would have his death or none at all. I offered them a choice between him and Barabbas. Barabbas, a known murderer! What Barabbas did to those women makes even my skin crawl! But they would have none of it.

And without a crucifixion, how am I to keep them entertained? The poor things need some release for their emotions. Without this focus for their anger, it could all erupt into true rebellion. Easy enough to quell, but rather messy, and certainly not something I would want word of to get back to Rome. No, certainly not.

And . . . well, I do admit I like blood sport as much as anyone else. A little torture, a little flogging, an execution here and there keeps you feeling alive—and certainly keeps those Jews in line. Especially at this time of year. Their passions have always run high during their rituals—simply part of the drama we play annually. They talk of revolt and freedom—something to do with some “Passover” and mass exodus from oppression they believe their God saved them from centuries ago. I counter with talk of massacres—once I even mingled the blood of, what were they? Ah, yes, Galileans! I mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices! And then, after all that talk, we compromise with a simple execution—and, if they’ve been really good, the release of a prisoner. The playacting can become a bit tedious at times, but they relish the drama and pageantry of it all.

But to cast this one in the lead role? Really, those Pharisees were asking quite a lot of me! Their accusations were so outrageous that even he refused to dignify them with a response. His very silence proclaimed his innocence. No, no, we certainly didn’t follow the script this year!

Yet those Jews were so insistent. And when I could find nothing to uphold the charges, I was forced, simply forced to send him on to Herod. After all, Herod’s family has been ruling these people for decades—he should have been able to make some sense of this mess. And Herod dealt so effectively with that other one, what was he called? The Baptizer? Yes, I had great hopes that Herod could clear up this bother.

But, really, that Herod must be growing weak! Oh, Herod mocked him when no miracles were forthcoming, but that’s no way to address such a delicate situation—the ridicule route? Crown a supposed rebel with thorns and drape an elegant robe over him? Especially when even such a crown as that sits so lightly on his brow, and such a robe falls so naturally from his shoulders. Yes, the fool certainly looks the part of a king. I wonder what it is about him? Oh, I suppose all fanatics, when they truly believe in themselves, create that impression. And to sacrifice himself so willingly for another—well he must either be a fool or a fanatic now, mustn’t he?

Now, now, my dear, hush! Why the fuss? There’s no call for such fear, despite your dreams. I did my best to free him, and in the end I washed my hands of him. Before the crowd I called, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility!” And they shouted back, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”

Yes, yes, I am innocent of his blood. I am perfectly innocent.

[Pilate begins drying his hands again, as if he can’t quite get them clean. Blackout.]

String reprise of “Ah, Holy Jesus”

Silence

Song

“Lamb of God” (Twila Paris, in Maranatha! Praise Chorus Book 3, 7)

Female soloist sings stanzas 1 and 2; congregation sings chorus.

[It is Saturday, the Sabbath. Mary is numb with grief and emotional exhaustion, yet anger, pain, and bitterness echo in her words. She has been abandoned by friends and family who fear that somehow her tragedy could taint them as well.]

Mary: How do I fare, John? My Son is dead. Yesterday I watched them mock him, flog him, spit on him, force him to drag his own cross, pound nails into his hands and feet, slash his side. I saw others wrap him in linen, lay him in a tomb, roll the stone in place, seal him alone in the dark. My Son is dead. And for all the mercy he has shown, my God may as well be dead too.

My Son felt that, there, alone, exposed before all heaven and earth. “Why have you forsaken me?” he cried—we all cried.

This is not the God who sent an angel to announce my Son’s birth. “Highly favored” the angel called me, promising me a Son with a throne and a kingdom over which he would rule forever. Yet what did I care for such things? A Son the angel promised, and when I first held my child, I saw kingdom enough in his eyes; certainly they granted high favor every time they sparkled in recognition of me.

This is not the God who favored my cousin Elizabeth with a child after years of barrenness. “Blessed are you among women,” she called to me when her child recognized the child I would bear and leaped for joy. Together with Elizabeth my soul sang to that God, and my spirit rejoiced in my Lord. And later, when my Son’s hand first grasped my finger, when his tender palm curled tightly around my thumb, I knew just how greatly blessed I was.

This is not the God who sent hosts of angels to shepherds proclaiming my Son’s birth. “Glory to God in the Highest,” they sang, announcing that a Savior had been born. Those shepherds—children themselves really, nearly as wild as the sheep they kept—told me all this, and I treasured it in my heart, but not nearly as much as I treasured the music of my Son’s first laugh.

This is not the God who brought a man both righteous and devout, Simeon, and led Anna the prophetess to bless my Son at the temple, to call him God’s salvation and a light for revelation. Nor the God who sent Magi with gifts to worship him. Yet how much greater a gift when my Son’s feet—his feet so small—first stepped on their own, when his voice first cried “Mama”?

[Reaching an emotional climax.] How could that God who brought such joy, such blessings, such gifts, stand by yesterday? Where was he when they mocked my Son? How could he allow them to put nails through my Son’s hands and feet? Why would he ignore my Son’s cries? My Son. I’ve lost my Son.

I suppose I began losing him years ago, John. When you and the others first joined him. So many others needed him then, still need him, and I saw, though I didn’t want to admit it, that he was no longer only mine. No, no it began even earlier, that day in the temple, that Passover now more than twenty years ago. We lost him for three days, three of the longest days of my life, only to find him in the temple learning from the teachers. Do you know what he said when we found him? “Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” [Angry.] His Father’s house? [Suddenly thoughtful as she realizes the implications.] His Father’s house . . .

[Mary has begun to let go, beginning the process of healing.] Yes, in many ways I lost him long ago, though I wonder if he was ever really mine. Did God cry when the angels sang, knowing his only child’s birth would end in sacrifice? Does watching your Son die hurt as much when you’re divine? I suppose, if I had listened closely all those years ago, I too would have known it would end like this. Simeon told me a sword would pierce my soul. And those gifts the Magi brought? Gold for a king, yes, but incense for an offering, and myrrh for a burial.

A burial. My Son—God’s Son is dead. [Blackout]

Soloist hums the chorus from “Lamb of God” without accompaniment, much like a lullaby.

Silence

Song

“When Jesus Wept” PH 312

Male soloist sings once; male quartet sings in canon once.

[The lights come up on Peter pacing distractedly on stage. He starts as a rooster crows. He is angry and dismayed with himself, frustrated and despairing. But above all, he is sorrowful. His guilt and impetuous nature make him tell the entire story to John, though even as he rationalizes and makes his excuses, he knows how weak they sound. He feels no hope for forgiveness.]

Peter: I never noticed how often roosters crowed before. They’re such a part of daily life, who would notice? But they haunt me now, John, they do.

I told him I’d be faithful to the end, and I was! Well, after a fashion, I mean. When we were in the garden, I stood by his side, though we were outnumbered. I had my sword out before any others. I made sure they knew we could bite when I cut off that servant’s ear. I didn’t retreat. Well, at least not until they arrested him. I didn’t mean to leave him, John, but you were there! You saw that mess! I didn’t mean to leave. . . .

After that I tried to follow him. I did! I followed him to Caiaphas’s courtyard. You heard me tell him that even if all the others fell away, I never would. And so I followed him. It was hopeless to do so. I knew that it was all over, that we were all marching towards death—his death. But I followed. I said I would. “Even if I have to die with you!” I said.

It was cold there. They had a fire going in the courtyard, but I couldn’t get too near—too many people were crowded around it. Well, actually I could have gotten closer, but I didn’t think it was wise to stand so fully in the light. They were an angry group, you know? And, well, I didn’t think it wise.

And then that servant girl! A sly thing! So pert, so insistent. “You also were with that Jesus of Galilee!” she shrilled so that everyone heard. It took me by surprise, it did. She forced an answer before I could even think. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And really, I didn’t. I mean, yes of course I was with Jesus, but not right then, him inside, me outside . . . John, I answered before I could think. Said words I can never take back.

I thought it best I stand somewhere else after that. I stepped a little aside. Actually, I moved to the gateway where it was a bit darker and where people seemed to have a little more information about what was happening inside. People were coming and going, and I thought I could learn something, and, well, I thought that perhaps that girl would forget about me, think I had left. Then another person, someone there at the gate, insisted, simply insisted, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again it took me by surprise, and, well, I didn’t want them to think I had actually lied before so I just said that I didn’t really know the man. I mean, how many of us really knows someone? Did any of us really know him? So that’s what I said to them. . . . Well, I probably worded it a bit more strongly. In fact, I might have sworn a bit about it, but really, I was beginning to get angry. So I lied again.

I got really angry when a group of them came at me and pointed out my accent. “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.” I admit now that I yelled, that I—well some curses were exchanged—and again I swore. Just a bit. And I might have said something like, “I don’t know the man,” because, well, what I meant was that just because I have this accent, doesn’t mean I know him, and, well . . . I lied again . . .

[A rooster crows again, and Peter jumps. Angry now.] You see? They haunt me. [A pause. A heavy silence as Peter realizes he has just disowned Christ three times again. Peter takes a deep, shuddering breath; he is now ready to admit his guilt.] John, he said I would disown him. He said I would deny him three times before the rooster crowed. I didn’t mean to. I never meant to. I had made all those promises to him, to myself. I tried, I tried! But I failed. He was right. I did disown him. That night. Just now. Three times. And now every cockcrow shouts my faithlessness to the world.

I never thought it would end this way. I betrayed him as completely as Iscariot did, three times over. Do you think he knew when I did? I’m afraid—no, I’m certain he knew my heart. And I, I couldn’t even screw up enough courage to get close enough to . . . to the cross to ask his forgiveness.

[Hopelessly insistent.] John, it can’t end this way. It can’t! [Despairing.] I mean . . . it can’t end this way, can it? Will it? [Blackout]

Song

“Were You There”

Soloist sings stanzas 1-3, followed by stanza 1 again.

The congregation exits in silence.

Notes for the Director

Characters
The drama will be most powerful if the characters speak from memory, but you may also choose to present it as readers’ theater.

Judas is an active man anywhere between twenty and forty-five years old. He is not a simple villain but a man battling doubt.

Mary Magdalene is between eighteen and thirty. She is our one spot of hope in the play.

Pilate is older, between forty-five and sixty. While he fears many things, he should still convey a sense of authority—he would not have risen to his position without it.

Mary is between forty-five and fifty. Portraying her grief will be a balancing act between the woodenness of being numb and the melodramatics of being too maudlin.

Peter, like Judas, can be between twenty and forty-five. He is urgent, tripping over his words, but he must not sacrifice clarity in the urgency.

Costumes and Props

Instead of providing full costuming, suggest the characters with a prop or an accessory and dress the actors in black or subdued colors.

Judas has his bag of silver.

Mary Magdalene can use a head scarf dramatically.

Pilate has his hand towel and perhaps a basin.

Mary may also wear a head scarf or shawl and have a bowl or jar of myrrh beside her.

Peter may perch on and pace around a large rock.

Sets

No sets are needed. Rather, use platforms, stools, perhaps an impressive chair for Pilate’s throne to create areas from which the actors can portray their characters.

Lighting

Lighting can be extremely simple, and some basic directions have been included. To help the congregation enter into the scene, the sanctuary should be darkened and the lighting focused on the stage area. Spotlights could be used effectively.

Staging

The various characters should have their own area on stage. These areas may overlap with other characters, especially for more active participants like Judas, but they shouldn’t be duplicated. Do not assume that the characters are speaking to the congregation; rather, the congregation is eavesdropping on some very private conversations. Each character does have a specific audience (though each stands alone on stage), and each could and should use a focal point, since all but Judas are speaking to only one person. Since Judas is talking with the Pharisees, the actor could speak directly to the entire congregation or a portion of it if he feels that would have greater effect. The other actors could place their focal point in the congregation as well, or place their “audience” somewhere on stage with them.

Musicians and Soloists

The music is there to set the mood and introduce and close each character. So the musicians and soloists should be out of sight, if possible, and the actors shouldn’t try to be their own soloist. Each piece can be performed for the congregation, or the congregation can be asked to join in on those songs that are familiar. Music, lights, and pacing should create pauses between each character so that the congregation has a moment to reflect and assimilate the different emotions.