If you are on our church campus this week, you will likely notice the reverberating sounds of construction, you will hear the echo of orchestral instruments and a large chorus of vocalists rehearsing, and you will notice men of all ages curiously unshaven, some with a mature beard and others with adolescent fuzz. This year, for the first time since Hurricane Ivan, First Baptist Church is presenting the Pensacola Easter Pageant.
For many years this annual musical re-enactment of selected scenes from the passion of Christ has been a culminating highlight of Holy Week for our community. The pageant itself requires a lot of work. Volunteers spend countless hours building and assembling props. Members of the music staff are relentless in recruiting the cast and costuming the major characters. The choir and soloists begin right after Christmas memorizing and rehearsing the music. The closer we get to the pageant date, the more intense and numerous the preparations become.
Our church is blessed with a significant number of retired and semi-retired members who are skilled with both hammer and saw, so we have a dedicated crew to build the set. We are gifted with an extraordinary choir and orchestra, determined that the music will be presented with excellence. And typically we conscript an adequate and willing troupe to portray the cast of the biblical passion narrative.
Some of the dramatic roles are easy to fill. As I compared this year’s cast to the video clips from pageants past, I have noted that Jesus is a carryover from the last pageant. Although he has married since the last pageant, he is about the same size and though youthful, the guy can grow a beard overnight.
The disciples and the guards are a mix of new volunteers and repeat performers, some of whom are a little grayer and a little more portly than last time. Mary, the mother of Jesus is a brunette, and Mary Magdalene is a blond. Nicodemus has lost about 30 pounds, Joseph of Arimathea is a seminary graduate, and Judas is portrayed by an exceptionally honest naval pilot.
Other than the role of Judas, the most challenging part to fill is the role of a thief. Few who have played the part of the thief volunteer a second time. The role of the thief is strenuous and laborsome, being strapped to a cross for a significant portion of the program – condemned, semi-clothed, exposed – just hanging there helplessly for all the world to see.
Our cast includes two thieves, one on each side of Jesus, a “good” thief and a “bad” thief. There is just something about being the thief on the cross that many find a little distasteful or uninviting. But you can’t have a real Easter pageant or grasp the full meaning of the Easter story without a thief.
In actuality, the thief should be one of the easier roles to fill, primarily because everyone, other than the original Jesus, has at least a little bit of real-life experience playing the part. What usually happens when you are confronted with the gospel story is that you become aware of the thief within. To internalize the real Easter story, each of us must identify ourselves as the thief before we are able to identify ourselves as a disciple.
Barry Howard serves as senior minister at First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.