For whom the cock crows

March 29, 2012


[Episcopal News Service] On Palm Sunday, congregations around the world will relive the Passion of Christ, according to the Gospel of Mark. From the distance of two thousand years, it is easy to feel contempt for the malevolent religious leaders, the cowardly apostles and the fickle mob. But what was it really like to be in the crowd that fateful day when Jesus’ life hung in the balance? Last summer, theatergoers in London had the opportunity to approximate that experience.

“The Mysteries” by playwright Tony Harrison was on stage at the Globe Theater. This theatrical production was a modern version of the medieval mystery plays, in which community guilds re-enacted biblical scenes on fancy platforms (precursors to our parade floats of today) and competed to upstage each other. These plays were widely performed in England from the 10th century until the late 16th century and had a significant influence on Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Bible, first published in 1611.

The Globe Theater, built in recent years as a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, was the perfect setting for “The Mysteries,” with a thatched roof, circular seating, and an open courtyard in the center of the theater. Comfort was not to be bought at any price. The cheapest tickets were for those willing to stand or sit under the open sky for the three-hour performance. Alas, they got a soaking that day! Those willing to pay more were treated to covered wooden benches, but if you wanted a back to your seat you had to pay even more.

Despite these conditions, you could hear a pin drop in the packed house, a testament to the quality of the production and acting. The use of costumes, implements, and humor from our times gave familiar Bible stories the visual equivalent of vernacular, which had a mesmerizing affect. The ring-shaped structure of the theater allowed you to see hundreds of faces around you.

The most powerful part of the performance was the Passion. When one of the actors turned to the crowd and said “Who should we release?” the crowd shouted, “Barabbas!” I said nothing. The actor asked again, and an older English gentleman sitting next to me cried out, “Jesus! Release Jesus!” Once he spoke, I realized that through the magic of theater, the crowd (including me) was spellbound, lured into a mental state that perhaps was similar to the one in the crowd way back when.

With the clarity of hindsight, I realized that when the crowd first started shouting, I wondered to myself, did the actors just want us to play along the way the story goes? I wasn’t sure. But the man next to me saw it as a way to make the right choice, regardless of what was expected or what the crowd wanted.

What I learned from this experience was that it is hard to think straight when quickly confronted with a choice in a noisy crowd. It is easy to just sit there quietly, unsure of what to do next. And it is easy to make up excuses as to why I didn’t do the right thing.

Social scientists refer to this inclination to follow the crowd as “anchoring,” the unconscious pull to be unduly influenced by outside suggestion. Another powerful unconscious preference is the desire to avoid a loss. With these innate tendencies for anchoring and loss aversion, the human species is quite vulnerable to the will of a mob.

Today we understand these unconscious tendencies as standard operating features of the human brain, powerful emotional forces that can be channeled if not controlled. While these tendencies may have been named by us, they weren’t invented by us. They arose in creation long ago, and flowed into our genes as we evolved.

Although he used different language, Jesus was well aware of these same inner biases of human nature. Repeatedly, Jesus encouraged his followers to be on guard against their worldly nature, which was often opposed to their spiritual nature. Many of his most basic teachings guide the way in making the worldly nature answer to the spiritual nature, for example: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36); “It is what comes out of a person that defiles” (Mark 7:20); and “Go, your faith has made you well” (Mark 10:52).

At the Mount of Olives just before his capture, Jesus reprimanded Peter for falling asleep (Mark 14:37-38):

“He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’”

Jesus knew what it was to be human, and how to transcend the human condition by partnering humbly with God in faith, hope, and love. This was most obvious after the resurrection, when he greeted his disciples not with reproach for abandoning him but with the reassuring words “Peace be with you” (Luke 24.36).

Perhaps this is why the story of Jesus is still the greatest story ever told, even to secular ears in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-Anglican world. He understood us, and loved us, and willingly died to give the human species a hopeful future in reconciling heaven and earth. Despite all the upheavals of the past two thousand years, nothing has changed spiritually. We are in need of redemption, just like the rest of Creation.

When I hear the Passion this Sunday, I will listen with different ears. Will I have the nerve to shout “Jesus!” when everyone else says “Barabbas” or will I say what is expected? Either way, when the cock crows it will be for me, the rest of the human species and all of Creation. And by Easter, the guilt and shame will be transformed once again into “Peace be with you.” Thanks be to God!

—Phyllis Strupp is author of Church Publishing’s Faith and Nature curriculum, based on her book “The Richest of Fare: Seeking Spiritual Security in the Sonoran Desert.”

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