The Common Good
November 2007

Dramatic Faith

by James Martin, SJ | November 2007

Like the actors in this off-Broadway play, we're all participants in the story of Jesus.

James Martin, SJ, unexpectedly became a “theological dramaturge” when playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and his cast sought help in developing the characters for Guirgis’ play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. The play portrays Judas’ trial in purgatory for betraying Jesus. For six months, Martin and cast members embarked on late-night conversations about not only the historical and theological contexts surrounding Jesus and Judas, but also such weighty questions as, What is sin? and Why does God allow despair? In A Jesuit Off-Broadway, Martin recounts how the experience enriched his understanding of the dramatic aspects of Jesus’ work and story.

 

When the lights went down on the closing night performance, the audience stood up to cheer and stamp their feet on the risers. The cast assembled for the last time to accept the audience’s praise. Stephen was called onstage, took a well-deserved bow, and exited the stage with the cast. In my seat in the front row, I found myself tearful, hoping that no one would see. This was it, I thought. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot would never again exist in this form, with this cast. What everyone had worked for all these months was now finished.

Now I better understood how the show had influenced my faith. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot began its first readings in January, just a few weeks before Lent began that year. The play opened for previews the day before Ash Wednesday. The run continued throughout the season of Lent, and the play closed shortly after Easter Sunday. This timetable meant that during the run, the stories of the final days of Jesus’ ministry—his entry into Jerusalem, his last meal with his friends, his betrayal at the hands of Judas, and his capture, trial, and crucifixion—were being read during daily Masses. At the same time I was thinking about Jesus and Judas onstage, I was thinking about them while I was in church.

The play affected me on another, perhaps deeper, level as well. Each night at the Public Theater, the cast of Judas told, to a new audience, the tale of Jesus of Nazareth and his circle of friends. Watching the actors reminded me of the original tellers of the tale, who were also original participants in the drama: people such as Peter and Mary Magdalene and Matthew and Thomas and Simon the Zealot. After witnessing Jesus’ life over a three-year period—seeing his amazing miracles, hearing his parables and stories, and being witnesses to his passion, death, and resurrection—the first disciples would have found it impossible to be silent, to refrain from telling their own versions of the tale. They, like many people in the arts, would have been compelled to express what they had witnessed.

This first generation of storytellers would have passed their stories on to members of the early church, who huddled behind closed doors and gathered in back rooms to tell the stories to one another and to new members of their group. Perhaps these people heard the stories directly from one of the apostles. And perhaps these earliest Christians, now one degree removed from the action, needed to dramatize things, to “get up,” as actors say, to communicate their tales more effectively. Who knows if, in those hidden rooms, first in Judea, then in Asia Minor, the early Christians might not have acted out some of these scenes for one another?

FINALLY, WE COME to the evangelists, the writers of the gospels, who would set down the stories on the page. Like any good playwright, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John needed an eye for narrative structure—an understanding of where to place a miracle story and where to place a saying of Jesus, for example—as well as a good ear for dialogue and clever turns of phrase. If you study the texts carefully, you can see how the later gospels used the earlier ones and subtly altered the structure of the story to meet the needs of their communities. Sometimes they even explained things that were not clear in the earlier telling.

The four evangelists would have understood how a well-told story can convey truth. Some of the storytellers were Jews writing for a Jewish audience steeped in the stories of the Hebrew scriptures. The listeners would have heard echoes from the ancient scriptures as they listened to what had happened to Jesus. They might have asked themselves, Didn’t the story of Jesus sound like the story in Genesis of Joseph, who was also betrayed, by his 12 brothers, but who in the end redeemed them? Didn’t the story of Jesus remind them of the prophecies of Isaiah, who spoke of someone who would bring sight to the blind, heal the lame, and set captives free?

The evangelists also spoke Greek, as did many of their listeners, and so they likely knew the tradition of the Homeric bards and were familiar with the plays that told of the doings of Greek gods. Many of the gospel stories, in fact, seem like little dramas, with vivid characters and surprising endings and memorable dialogue.

Sometimes it almost seems that the evangelists were writing specifically for the stage. When St. Mark tells about the paralytic man being healed, he sets a marvelous scene. The event is related in all three synoptic gospels. A great crowd gathers outside a man’s home to see the great prophet Jesus of Nazareth. When four men bring along their friend, a paralytic man lying on a mat, they cannot get through the crowd to Jesus. So they clamber onto the roof and begin to tear it apart. We can imagine a first-century audience saying, “Unbelievable! That man must have really wanted to meet Jesus! And his friends must have really loved him to do that!”

The man, still lying on his mat, is gently lowered to the ground and deposited before Jesus. Seeing the men’s faith, Jesus is filled with compassion and tells the paralytic man that his sins are forgiven. But the religious authorities in the crowd are shocked. They ask, as does Caiaphas in Stephen’s play, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” In response, Jesus says, “‘But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.’”

With that little aside, Mark is giving some stage directions. And then comes the dramatic ending: The man is healed, picks up his mat, and walks away. The crowds are amazed. “We have never seen anything like this!” they say.

It is not difficult to imagine people in antiquity applauding after hearing the miraculous ending to the story—an ending everyone wants, because it presents a just and compassionate response from God. The evangelists told their stories so well that we are reading their tales 2,000 years later.

 

SEEING THE STORY of Jesus and Judas told every night reminded me of the importance of narrative in the spiritual life. Each night, the actors were presenting the same story over and over, the way the evangelists had done, in the hope that something personal might be sparked within the lives of the audience.

The dramatic arts that my friends had mastered—writing, directing, acting—were essential tools for telling a good story. Along with writing, preaching, painting, and sculpting, acting has long been an important means of conveying religious truth. As Sister Martha Kirk writes in A New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, our contemporary and Western distinctions between drama and religious ritual did not exist for much of the history of civilization. Ancient Greek and Roman dramas found their origins in religious ritual and in cultic activities that were highly dramatic. Likewise, the Hebrew scriptures contain numerous examples of the dramatization of God’s message: Jeremiah breaks a pot to give force to the image of God’s wrath. Ezekiel lies on the ground to illustrate the destruction of Jerusalem.

Even the story of the Last Supper contains overtly dramatic actions. Not only did Jesus re-enact the Passover during the Seder, as all Jewish men and women did and still do, but he also enacted for the disciples his ideal of service: the washing of feet. Rather than telling his disciples that they should be servants, he stripped off his tunic and washed the feet of Peter. Jesus literally acted out his message.

The whole of the liturgical year—the annual cycle of church feast days and commemorations—can be seen as a kind of extended drama. While the secular calendar moves from January to December, the liturgical calendar follows another timetable: beginning with the birth of Jesus, continuing through his young adulthood, baptism, and ministry of preaching and healing, and ending with his passion, death, and resurrection. During the liturgical year, believers participate in this drama, finding themselves alternately uplifted and saddened, much as one would be in a richly imagined performance onstage.

And, clearly, the central act of worship in the Catholic Church, the celebration of the Mass, is a drama. It is a dramatic retelling of the passion, death, and resurrection that includes dialogue between the presider and the congregation, who act as a kind of Greek chorus. The gestures, symbols, and ritual of the Mass are a means of telling a story and pointing to another, deeper reality. The Masses for the holy days and church feast days are notably rich in dramatic moments, especially around the time of Easter: Catholics process with palms on Palm Sunday to recall the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem; the presider at Mass washes the feet of the congregation on Holy Thursday; the cross is presented for the congregation to venerate on Good Friday; and during the Easter vigil, the new members of the church are plunged into the water as part of their baptism, recalling not only the baptism of Jesus but also his three days in the tomb.

So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that The Last Days of Judas Iscariot reminded me so much of the celebration of the Mass. My liturgical theology professor once said that one helpful way of looking at the Mass is as a “re-presentation” of an event, in this case the Last Supper, made real once again for the participant. For Jesus, the original event was the Passover. The Jewish people believed that in retelling the story, they were making it real.

In turn, Christianity’s celebration of the Mass became the new presentation of the Last Supper, with Jesus taking the place of the sacrificial lamb. Each celebration of the Mass is a fresh retelling of an ancient event, again made new. And in Catholic tradition, the Mass truly makes real the presence of Christ—in the readings, in the congregation, in the presider, and, above all, in the eucharistic bread and wine.

This was something of what I felt about the play. As the story of Jesus and Judas was made real every night for me, it became, in its own way, almost a holy event.

Excerpted from A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life’s Big Questions, by James Martin, SJ. Copyright 2007. Reprinted with permission from Loyola Press. Martin is associate editor of America magazine.

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