Sitting in a planning meeting, I looked across the table at Beanie Kelly, our Children’s Minister – that one person in the church that you can never refuse. The play director started naming persons for each role. When it came to playing Jesus, however, there would be no cast member. Jesus would be a life-sized cut-out, displayed behind a white paper wall with a tech person manning a spotlight so only a shadowed silhouette would appear, timed at a dramatic moment. Other characters received their designated assignments, the Disciples, Mary Mother of Jesus, Nicodemus, and so on.
The discussion came to who would play Mary Magdalene. The scene was set in the wee hours of the morning at the site of Jesus’ tomb. The scripture monologue was applied from John Chapter 20. Mary would stand in front of a cave prop and describe her encounters with the angels and with Jesus, who she mistook for a gardener. Who would play Mary, this named follower of the Christ, the unknown and sometimes defamed background?
Beanie looked at me, and I looked at her. She has this way of saying, “You would be great at this!” drawing you in to believe that such a thing was true.
“Michelle would be a great Mary Magdalene,” she chimed in.
The director agreed. I took a deep breath, smiled at Beanie in surrender, and said yes to the part – knowing that refusal would squash whatever adventure God put in front of me. And saying no to Beanie? That would be a sacrilege!
The church would put on a progressive play about the Jesus’ week in Jerusalem – the last supper with His disciples, the crucifixion with is mother, Mary, and John watching, and finally the Resurrection with Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrected Messiah. The Sunday School building classrooms would act as navigable scenes from each event of Christ’s last week. Each room was fully dressed to depict the scene, dialogs scripted to reflect the first person witnessing, and a cast to make each moment come to life.
My only background in theater was playing a lame beggar in the basement of our Methodist Church in 1976 – I was nine. My costume was a children’s choir robe and rags wrapped around my bum leg. On que, I hobbled with the crippled leg dragging dramatically behind me until I reached Jesus. A touch from the Master and I skipped and jumped in jubilation, dramatically emphasizing the healing miracle that had taken place. I imagined I would react the same if I had received the miracle of walking again.
Fast forward to 2013 and I receive my script to play Mary Magdalene. The last Sunday School room at the end of the upstairs hallway was small and intimate. An elaborate cave was constructed out of rolls of art paper on a wooden frame with brown, gray and black spray paint to reflect the geological colors just outside Jerusalem. Off to the side was white paper wall hung from ceiling to floor. Behind that was a life-sized cutout of a man with long hair and an ankle length robe with his hands to the side of his hips, palms facing out. A spot light controlled by gentleman sitting with script in hand would turn on to illuminate Jesus – casting a dramatic figure for Mary Magdalene and the audience to see.
We could use the script during dress rehearsal and, with words in hand, I read through using memory in the comfortable parts. I imagined Mary Magdalene heading to the tomb early in the morning expecting to continue the rituals cut short a few days before and finding the unexpected. Other cast members were the audience and the run through went well.
Sunday morning came. The play would commence and last about an hour and fifteen minutes with groups of 15 or more coming through each room/scene. The actors and stage hands would repeat their scenes with each new group and reset for the next. I liked the idea of a walking play, moving from one moment to the next – following Jesus.
I put on my choir-like robe, an adult size to the child’s I put on in 1976, and a blue head shawl covering my hair. The lighting technician was behind the cave ready to illuminate cut-out Jesus. I had my lines in hand and we went through the scene a few more times. I had not fully memorized my lines and it was nearing time to start. I had my smartphone and thought, Maybe I can record my lines and listen to them on my headphones, no one would know with the head piece covering my ears.
I knew that was a dumb option and I put my phone on a book shelf by the door. I laid the dialog sheets next to it and I prayed, “Father, this is all you. I trust that I will be Mary Magdalene for the next hour and what comes out will be Your truth. In Jesus Name I pray, Amen.” We waited for the first group to come through. I trusted God would provide me with all aspects of acting to pull this off.
Here is how it went, me as Mary Magdalene in first person describing the events, but it become more emotional – a feeling of panic, worry, heartbreak, then confusion, wonder, and unexpected realization – overwhelming hope. I felt these feelings – these Mary Magdalene feelings as the words came out in an adlib scriptural rendition from the Book of John.
“Early this morning, I came here and saw the stone had been rolled away. I was frightened so I went to get Peter and the other disciple Jesus loved.
I told them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down and looking in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Peter came behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the linen strips lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple also went inside. He saw and believed, then they left and went back to where they were staying.
I stood outside the tomb crying. I bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting where Jesus’ body had been, one sat at the head and the other at the foot. (My arm waved slowly back and forth to indicate the angels’ seated positions)
They asked me, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it that you are looking for?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” I said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” Right then, I turned around and saw a man standing there, but I didn’t know who he was. (The light came on and illuminated Jesus)
He asked me, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” (I turned around and took a step toward the lighted figure)
I thought he was the gardener, and I said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to me, “Mary.” (I said this with an emotional whisper, tears welling up in my eyes. I choke out the name.)
I cried out “Teacher!” (Except this doesn’t come out as a surprising exclamation, but a quiet, overwhelming realization that I am face to face with the Risen Messiah. My heart filled with unimaginable hope and my voice squeaks.)
Jesus said to me, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have yet to ascend to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (I turned to look at the audience and finish the story)
I went to the disciples with the news, “I have seen the Lord!” And I told them that he said these things to me.
John 20:1-18 NIV
I repeated the scene seven more times that morning as I shared the Good News and, after each scene, would hear the lighting tech sniff a few times. God allowed me to see it from Mary’s eyes, and her heart. I cannot read the passage without feeling a trace of each emotion – the torment of His Death, confusion and sorrow at the empty tomb, and the teary-eyed realization as He spoke to Mary. The elation of knowing He is alive – the hope that brings to my life is immeasurable – the Messiah, the Teacher, my Jesus.