A church organist in Petersburg, Virginia in 1953 is first person to come up with the idea of turning Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper into a dramatic production. Ernest Emurian, a Methodist pastor, takes the idea and runs with it, developing soliloquies for the twelve Apostles. Each is a response to Jesus’ statement, “One of you will betray me.” Apostle after Apostle ‘unfreezes’ from the depiction of the painting, tells his story, and asks “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” Emurian calls his drama “A Living Picture of the Last Supper,” and it premieres on Palm Sunday night in 1954 at Elm Avenue Methodist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia. Over the course of the next few years the drama is published and presented all over Virginia and North Carolina before becoming a national phenomenon.
Every year, the church I grew up in put on a production of “A Living Picture of the Last Supper.” The men of the church memorized their speeches, grew beards, put on makeup, and donned costumes for what was always an impressive presentation. It is a production replicated in tens of thousands of churches over the years, including the parish I served in Richmond. The haunting question, “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” is remembered by every person who has participated in it or attended it.
“Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” For eleven of the disciples, the answer (of course) is ‘no’, but it might as well be ‘yes’ because each character is deeply flawed and riddled with sin. It is hard to calculate the influence Emurian’s drama has had on shaping the spirituality of Holy Week, but surely its impact has been significant. It directs us to ask, “When have I, like Judas, betrayed my Lord?” “When have I, like Peter, denied him?” From this perspective, the goal and purpose of Holy Week (and especially Good Friday) is to make us feel really, really, really bad about our sins and the purpose of our gathering here at this hour is to muster in us the deepest possible remorse.
Growing up and well into my adult life, this is how I approached Holy Week and Good Friday. No one taught me to do this. The message just somehow seeped in. But more and more I come to Holy Week, and especially to this service, identifying with the people who stand at the foot of the cross. Some of them are there doing their job. Of these, some are callous and indifferent while others have maintained their humanity while tasked with doing something completely inhumane. Simon of Cyrene did not expect to be here at all. He is in Jerusalem to observe the Passover but is forced to help Jesus. And now, standing at the foot of the cross, he surely is smeared with Jesus’ blood and traumatized by what has happened. And then there is the disciple Jesus loves, Jesus’ own mother, and several other women who are followers of Jesus. Their pain, their shock, their horror, is unimaginable.
The English writer Margaret Hebblethwaite makes this observation:
The extraordinary fact about the people gathered around the cross, who abandon all their duties for the day simply to be with Jesus, looking at him, is that they are changed by the experience. Just seeing, doing nothing, turns out to be for them a revolutionary experience, so that afterwards they see things differently and, no doubt, will act differently. They have not wasted their time doing nothing, but they have allowed themselves to be changed. Before the death of Jesus we are told how everyone was mooching and taunting him. Now, his agony over, a change has come over the scene. The centurion does not cry, “Now you can never be king, now you are dead!” but rather praises God saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.” And the multitudes beat their breasts in repentance. Judgments are altered, people see things in a different light, and they feel both sorrow for their sinfulness and praise for God’s goodness.
Hebblethwaite likens what they are doing at the cross to a contemplative practice known as prayers of simple regard, or the prayer of just watching. This kind of prayer does not require words, merely attention to what is happening around you. “Wait here.” “Watch.” “Stay awake.” “Pray.” These words of Jesus to his disciples in the garden before he is arrested now take on new meaning and new spiritual significance for me. Now they are my goal and focus for Holy Week and Good Friday. Be here. Show up. Pay attention. Allow the liturgy and the Scriptures and the experience to have their way with me. Perhaps it will lead me to deeper remorse, but more and more I find this does not seem to be lone destination.
At Wednesday night’s service of Tenebrae we listened to a reading from St. Augustine’s Treatise on the Psalms. In it, he encourages his readers to “place ourselves beside [the psalmist], that, by sharing his tribulation, we may also join in his prayer.” This now is my aim during Holy Week. I just want to walk and wait with Jesus. Typically, I don’t come away from this beating my chest – miserable sinner that I am – but touched in some way, changed somehow, and deeply grateful for what I have experienced.
I am always struck by how the Good Friday liturgy takes us from standing at the cross to offering up the Solemn Collects. The meaning is obvious. Once Jesus’ work in this world comes to an end our work begins. We respond to his death by offering prayers for the church, for the world, for those who suffer, and for those who have not received the Gospel. The collects conclude with one of my favorite prayers:
Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made.
It is a hopeful prayer which anticipates the Resurrection. It is worth noting it is offered at this service as well as at ordinations. Jesus’ death and the ordination of every deacon, priest, and bishop is a sign our Lord’s work continues on through us. Perhaps the best way to approach Good Friday then is to watch, to wait, to weep, and then to act.