Depicting the passion

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Christians have been telling the story of Jesus Christ's trial, crucifixion and resurrection for thousands of years. Each year around Easter, many area churches take that story to the stage as part of a Passion Play -- a drama that represents the suffering or "passion" of Jesus and includes the period of his arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

After having seen Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," some actors in these Easter dramas are seeing their roles in a new light.

Gibson's film gained attention for its violence -- it had an R rating -- but has been well-supported by Catholic and Evangelical Christian groups. Locally, churches rented the Town Plaza Theater and offered tickets to their members and invited guests. The film did have its critics: many Jewish leaders said the film was ant-Semitic, but Gibson maintains it is true to Scripture.

The drama "Good News" being staged at First Baptist Church in Jackson was written by a church member using the Bible as its text. It's a tradition for the script to be written by a church member. The play tells the story of the Passion but also includes other stories and teachings from the New Testament.

Scott McQuay, who plays Jesus, saw "The Passion" and hopes people come to see the "Good News" production for more of the biblical story about Jesus.

The drama tells more of the story about Jesus' ministry, he said. "There's more to it than the death; that's the awakening to a great sacrifice," he said.

People miss seeing the love and compassion Jesus had for others if they only know about the end of his life, McQuay said. During the play, they'll hear stories from a blind man whose sight was restored by Jesus' healing miracle and see Jesus teaching during the Sermon on the Mount. They'll also hear from Mary, his mother, and Saul/Paul who went from persecuting the Jews to becoming a disciple of Christ.

For Pam Sparks, who plays Mary, the Gibson film changed the way she looked at the crucifixion. "It's more real than it had been," she said.

McQuay said many of the people who saw the movie left with questions. He hopes they find answers at a church or by seeing an Easter drama. Hanging on the cross and looking out at the audience, where all the eyes are on you, "you get a sense of the great love" Jesus felt for mankind, he said.

McQuay portrays Jesus as he's beaten by Roman soldiers and going to his death on the cross.

But one area church intentionally chose its play so that some parts of the crucifixion story wouldn't be depicted on stage, particularly after so many people have been to see Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ."

At Lynwood Baptist Church, the Easter drama "I Choose Jesus" doesn't show everything from the last 12 hours of Christ's life but instead shares details and stories witnessed by a Roman soldier who eventually becomes one of Christ's followers.

Church members knew that they couldn't depict any of the crucifixion scenes as vividly as people had seen on screen in "The Passion," said Elaine Stone. Members even considered not doing any Easter drama because it would be too close to the Ash Wednesday release of Gibson's movie.

But if amateur actors can help bring one person to see Jesus, "then it's worth it," said Jimmy Wilferth. As the Roman soldier who arrests Jesus, Wilferth knows that his role is only acting and doesn't have any affect on his faith.

The scenes in "I Choose Jesus" go from Jesus' condemnation by the Sanhedrin council to a shadow of him on the cross. "We didn't want people to compare it and say 'That's not like the movie,'" said Wilferth, who plays the Roman soldier Cassius.

The idea wasn't to recreate the movie but to tell people more about Jesus. "That's what gives us the desire and drive to go ahead," he said.

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