Think of Passion Plays, and what comes to mind? Oberammergau, perhaps? Medieval pageant wagons, with slightly anachronistic costuming and beeswax candles for lighting? Think again — this time, about Wesley Grove United Methodist Church in Harmans, MD, and its decades-old Passion Play tradition. But don’t think in terms of medieval theology or antiquated portrayals of saintlyapostles. Think in terms of contemporary issues and flesh-and-blood disciples.
The play originated in 1977 under then-pastor the Rev. Tom Connar, when its purpose was simply to reenact the events of the Last Supper. In ensuing years the reenactments have evolved, becoming hour-long accounts of the events of Holy Week, with some hard-hitting themes. The Wesley Grove Disciples have examined such topics as sin and forgiveness, the nature of servant hood in the Christian life, Christ’s sacrifice on behalf of guilt-ridden individuals, and the change of spiritual perspective involved in the New Birth. They present their plays to various groups during Lent, and finish with their own church’s Maundy Thursday service.
Characters from the Gospel accounts come alive through some very human characterizations. When was the last time you thought of Jairus’ response to the astounding miracle of receiving back a child he thought dead? When was the last time you imagined James and John with the tempers which earned them the nickname “Sons of Thunder?” While being careful not to ascribe twentieth-century personalities to first-century individuals, scripts have nevertheless endeavored to show that human nature has not changed substantially in two millennia, and that the Gospel truths are very relevant today.
The Disciples strive for a level of professionalism which has impressed their audiences and gained them several yearly return engagements. Scenery is simple, to meet the demands of portability. Custom-made screens mask the elaborateness of church sanctuaries,and help to “transport” the audience back to the time of Christ. Members of the congregation make the costumes, which have evolved over the years from simple bathrobe-and-towel combinations to more detailed articles, suggestive of the First Century A.D.
To the Disciples, a production is a success if it affects people in a positive spiritual way. They delight to put their special personalities into each role they play, for the greater glory of God. Jim Radtke made a splash two years in a row when he portrayed an especially-loud and boisterous James “Son of Thunder” Zebedee, who in the end admits that his “temper never served anyone. Now [he] serve[s] a Risen Lord.” One man, reeling from a divorce, was cajoled into taking a small part, and found the Disciples’ love and support so tangible that he not only came back the next year, but requested a bigger role! Kathy Harris came to drop off her daughter for the first rehearsal of 1994, and within minutes found herself accepting the part of her daughter’s “mother!” Her enthusiasm for the play’s witness reached all the way to West Virginia.
One anonymous visitor to Wesley Grove’s Maundy Thursday observance commented, “Yours is a real worship service, not a production. “As long as people continue to feel the movement of the Spirit in what they do, the Disciples will “tread the boards” with the Good News of the Gospel.
This years lenten drama will be on Thursday April 13th at 7:00.