An American Easter


When I was a child, I looked forward to our church’s Easter play performed and directed by the members of the congregation, none of whom were professional actors. It was an exciting time for me, and during my early childhood (around the age of five), one that I understood literally.

The Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection were really happening before my eyes. Mr. Stevens, the pasty-faced stentorian patent attorney was no longer Mr. Stevens, but the apostle Peter; Mrs. Bailey, the effervescent, ever-efficient church secretary, was no longer Mrs. Bailey, but Mary Magdalene; Mr. Hugel’s nephew and occasional member of the congregation was brought in to play Jesus, not because of his acting ability, but because he had the only body that looked presentably thin as it hung on the cross. The rest of the cast (which included practically everyone in the congregation), had her/his/their part to play and costume to wear.

In short, it was a homespun version of the holy story, down to eight-year-old Sammy Taylor’s shaking thin sheets of metal near a microphone that served as the appropriate sound effect to indicate the tempest at the point of Jesus’s demise.

I believed that the players onstage were not just actors, but the actual characters from the biblical story. They were not just presenting a sacred story, but were the story as it was occurring. The nephew really did die, and really did roll away the rock that sealed his tomb. Or so I believed.

But there was a major dilemma for me in this. During the portrayal of the Last Supper, my father, the one-time, small-time carnival barker and bookie (i.e., Dad was in the Mafia), played either the disciple Bartholomew or Thaddeus. In other words, his role was not a big part. In fact, it was only one line. A short line, consisting of just three words. It came after Mr. Hugel’s distant nephew announced, “One of you has betrayed me,” and Dad asked, “Is it I?”

Or maybe he said, “Is it me?” Whatever he answered, it was a harmless line, nothing for a kid to be ashamed of, because I knew that my father wasn’t Judas, the actual betrayer. How could he be? Dad wasn’t even Jewish! In truth, I wasn’t sure why he was even in the play (which I believed was not a play at all, but reality playing itself out before my eyes).

In fact, Dad’s portrayal of one of the disciples mostly consisted of his sitting around and eating bread and drinking grape juice.

It was a bit like today’s reality TV, I guess, except grape juice back then is probably wine today.

But then, after the Last Supper on Thursday, there was the Crucifixion the next day. And there Dad was again, this time dressed as a Roman soldier (a centurion), complete with a long spear. There he was, standing at the foot of the cross, while Mrs. Bailey, a.k.a. Mary Magdalene; Mr. Stevens, a.k.a. the Apostle Peter; and the entire entourage of mourners prostrated themselves before the dying Christ.

And when the nephew, a.k.a. Jesus, breathed his last with, “It is finished. Into thy hands I commend by spirit,” and when Sammy Taylor began to shake the thin sheets of metal into the offstage microphone, and when the church organist, Mrs. Hugel, played discordant music on her accordion from the back of the audience, and when George, the church janitor, started switching the lights on and off over and over, it was my father, the Roman non-Jew, who, following the biblical story, stuck his spear into the Savior’s side to make sure that Jesus was really dead. And then, when he saw that Jesus had gone to heaven, proclaimed, “Surely this was the Son of God.”

My father: a nice guy but a killer! My father: the man who murdered Jesus! Or so I believed. My father, not just a disciple, not just one of those who suffered along with the death of the Messiah on Thursday, but the victimizer, the one on Friday who had the final thrust, the coup de grâce.

This was not an easy reality for a little boy to accept: that he, himself, could be the very son of such a turncoat. That he was the offspring of an anonymous Roman soldier, who, although nameless, became famous throughout history as the guy with the spear. And as the guy who was a very bad actor.

The entire Easter Pageant preformed at the Minnesota Ave.  Disciples of Christ Church in the Anacostia section of southeast Washington, D.C., was one I experienced for more than a decade. But none of the performances ever frightened me as much as the very first one I saw during that fateful weekend of 1950 when I was a little kid.

And yet, the story itself is universally known, and interpreted in countless ways. In 1950, through my child’s eyes, I saw it as reality. As a story actually happening at the time I was witnessing it.

Decades later, I see aspects of the Eastertime story through a psychological prism, one which informs me that each one of us is sometimes the victim, sometimes the victimizer. That we have each of those human personas within us, awaiting release, awaiting actualization.

In a broad sense, we can see that the story of Easter is ultimately about hope for a resurrection from a death of seemingly inconsolable circumstances for ourselves or for others. But we can also be the Judas and the Roman centurion. We can cause such a death; create such a loss.

The philosopher Schopenhauer, interpreted by Joseph Campbell, helps me to understand this broad interpretation of the Easter story. Speaking of such a confused state as the one I experienced as a child, Campbell writes: Such a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical realization, which is, that you and that other are one, that you are two aspects of the one life. . . that our true reality is in our identity and unity with all life.

Indeed, I believe that we human beings need stories that can guide us to discover who we are. And that some of these stories, deemed “sacred” by some cultures but not by others, can be guides to lead us through the questions and challenges of our existence. I know that my own life is richer because of my early instruction in the beliefs and ways of the mid-century, mid-American Christian church where I spent my early years.

In regard to this, let me share something I wrote from a humanist perspective, adapting it to the biblical account of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount.

A Sermon on the Mount

Blessed are you, the poor in spirit –

Those who stand in humility and awe before grandeur;

Who humble yourself before the un-answerables of the universe.

Blessed are you, the mourners –

Those who feel deep sorrow when you miss the mark of human connection;

Who seek repentance for your unjust acts toward others.

Blessed are you, the meek –

Those who cooperate with nature;

Who discover the joy of accepting.

Blessed are you, the hungry and thirsty –

Those who seek goodness and equity for all existence;

Who rail against the injustices of the planet by performing deeds of love.

Blessed are you, the merciful –

Those of you who help the suffering;

Who cultivate an attitude of caring toward those whose lives are filled with pain.

Blessed are you, the pure –

Those who have no ulterior motive;

Whose intentions are authentic, whose acts are genuine.

Blessed are you, the peacemakers –

Those who attempt to follow these beatitudes;

Who are able to blend feeling with thought, desire with action.


NOTE: Don Beaudreau is a member of Ajijic’s Writers Group, and has published books, articles, and poetry. He is a retired Unitarian Universalist minister.

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