Holy day dramas evoke 'Passion'
Apr. 7, 2004
Erin Uy
Staff Writer

Rachael Golden/The Gazette

Playing the part of Jesus in the Viers Mill Baptist Church musical drama, "The Road to Calvary," on Sunday, Rossi Cofield and church members acting as apostles sing for the audience in the Wheaton church.

Local churches hope new approach

inspires area faithful

Some local religious leaders say they realize that 2000-year-old stories may have lost their flair, especially for those who have sat through the same Scripture readings every year, every Sunday morning and every holy day they can remember.

The routine and tradition can be numbing, allowing Scripture readings and customs to lose their appeal and significance, said the Rev. Robert Wilson, the pastor of Viers Mill Baptist Church in Wheaton.

"These are stories that are more than just stories," Wilson said. "They are supposed to change our lives, the way we talk and the way we treat other people."

After the "100th time," Wilson said parishioners need a new perspective that will engage them and maintain their interest. Dramatized reenactments on the silver screen like the blockbuster hit, "The Passion of the Christ," or even plays in church auditoriums can sometimes provide insight to stories that may have exhausted readers' imagination, he said.

"For the passion of Christ, when you read the stories you become so familiar with them that you almost stop reading them," Wilson said. "Seeing it reenacted -- it makes it all come a little more alive [and] it makes them hear the story differently."

At its first attempt, Wilson's congregation staged a reenactment of the passion, "The Road to Calvary," as a way to refresh churchgoers who feel stuck in the routine of traditional Palm Sunday services. The dramatization was planned before "The Passion of the Christ" stirred controversy, but Wilson said it now plays well with the new outlook some people have about gaining perspective through different mediums.

The musical drama staged at Viers Mill Baptist Church Sunday night lacked the special effects that Mel Gibson's multi-million dollar movie displayed. Music played from a portable CD player, the backdrops for most scenes were made of either long drapes or paintings on cardboard, and lighting came from high-voltage lamps propped up on tripods that were secured with duct tape.

But the makeshift props and the eerie tones hummed by the church chorus seemed to provide enough impact for the audience to identify with Jesus as he was nailed to the cross.

Ting Wu-Pope brought her son Roger Pope, 8, to the presentation in hopes that both of them would gain a better understanding of Christ's passion. The scenes, surroundings and choir made the story more appealing for Wu-Pope, who expressed her excitement several times throughout the presentation.

"You actually feel like you are going back 2000 years in history," said Wu-Pope, a Rockville resident.

For Roger, some parts of the presentation may have been too serious to maintain his full attention, but he got the gist of what happened. He sat in the front row as "the bad guys took [Jesus] and put him on the cross," but it was OK because "he rose from the grave."

Wilson said watching a real person depicting love and suffering can sometimes speak to people more than words written in a book can. "The Passion of the Christ" has created a springboard for discussion, said Wilson who has talked to his parishioners about their reaction to the film. Many responded emotionally and said they felt more connected to Christ and the suffering he went through.

"A lot of people have talked to me about that, how powerful it was and how it brought the story back alive to them," Wilson said.

The Rev. Dru Tyler at Wheaton Presbyterian Church said she is taking "baby steps" with her church in adding different elements to traditional practices, something she said all church leaders should consider.

"We are responsible for helping people look at scripture and come to their own understanding of it," Tyler said.

For Good Friday, the day commemorating Jesus' crucifixion, Wheaton Presbyterian Church in Silver Spring will host a concert instead of a traditional evening service. Good Friday services are customarily quiet and solemn, but Tyler said she hopes that practicing it in a different way may spark enthusiasm for the important holy day. Further, on Sunday, the church is holding its first Easter egg hunt for children.

More visuals and new practices do not necessarily signify the end of Easter traditions and scripture readings, Tyler said. In fact, it may just pique interest, prompting people to read the Bible and other religious literature with new insight and a refreshed mind.

Tyler said "The Passion of the Christ" has rejuvenated the minds of many people and has confronted those who have been ducking serious spiritual questions that should be addressed during Easter season.

"It probably brought home an aspect the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that has fallen aside for the most part," Tyler said. "We don't like to talk about all those difficult things, and I think this movie is making us face all of that."

Tyler said the emphasis on Jesus' pain and suffering is much needed, especially for those who avoid the stories that give meaning to his resurrection. The Presbyterian faith focuses largely on the resurrection rather than Christ's suffering, said Tyler, who added that understanding his struggle allows for a deeper understanding of the latter events.

"If we don't express the intensity of lengths God goes to reach us, then what we talk about is very superficial and insignificant," Tyler said.

Larry White, an associate pastor at First Baptist Church of Wheaton in Silver Spring, agrees. His congregation of about 200 people meets in the church that was built in the early 1960s and has all the features of a traditional church, right down to the colorful stained glass windows. But in the past few years, the church has made some additions to modernize services. Installed shades are pulled over the stained glass windows where video images are projected during worship services.

During prayers, videos of nature scenes or clips of current events, such as images of war, are played in the background. Also, video images of reenacted biblical stories are played as a substitute for traditional readings. Sometimes clips from mainstream movies like "Schindler's List," a movie about the Holocaust, are played to provide examples in lectures on the value of human life.

"Words on paper have lost impact, and vision has now taken over," White said. "I think what we are seeing happen is that we are a generation of people who appreciate having our senses stimulated, and that increases our understanding and our awareness."

Thursday night, a group from the church will watch "The Passion of the Christ" together at Loews Cineplex in Wheaton. The church bought out the 300 seats in the theater to accommodate parishioners who want to attend and then have the Eucharist in the theater after the show.

White already saw the movie on opening night with about 40 other people from the church, but he said he is excited to see it again and will hopefully gain more perspective.

"I think the way the story was portrayed, it told the story in such a powerful and beautiful way that it grabbed people's hearts," White said. "After watching the movie people have said to me that 'I never realized how much he suffered for me.' "