Wednesday, 1 April 2015

stories of Jesus and love

Edinburgh, Spring 2015. Icy wind, intermittent rain, bagpipes and crowds filling the Old Town with noise. A small group walk together through it all, stopping at churches, gardens, castle promenade and ancient site of execution, and hear stories of encounter with Jesus in his last week before crucifixion.

We stepped out of the sheltered foyer of Greyfriars Kirk, having gathered, and as tour groups wandered through the kirkyard, we prayed, heard from prophets and gospels, and sang of Jesus entering Jerusalem.

We met a grave digger, or, as he described himself, a gardener, for in Israel and Jewish culture, the bodies of the dead are given a place of beauty in which to rest, surrounded by aromas and perfumes to cover the scent of decay. This gardener told of the many deaths at the hands of the Roman rulers, and wondered if this man Jesus might cross his path before the week was out.

On the steps of St Giles' Cathedral, above bagpipes and Royal Mile crowds, the noise and activity reminiscent of Passover Jerusalem, Jesus' mother spoke with pride and love of her son. She remembered her fear and shame at having lost him as a child, when he had remained behind at their temple, in their festival season, abiding in the Sacred Stories. Mary spoke of a new fear, of recognition that the path her son was walking was fraught with danger, and wouldn't he be safer in a small town, waiting for the priests to recognise him and promote him from there? (you can read more of the story Mary shared in this blog post from Katie Munnik, who brought Mary to life on Palm Sunday).

Secluded again in the courtyard of Ramsay Garden, representing the home of the High Priest of Jerusalem, Peter told his story. A story of disappointed expectations, of misunderstanding, of doubt and faith. We wanted to get something started - but it has all got out of hand. We wanted to defend Jesus - but we obeyed and let them take him away. We wanted to stay faithful to the end - we have faltered, have we reached the end?

Then Caiaphas emerged, regal looking, hands washed but knowing they are not clean. He had been confounded at Jesus' silence; condescending of the crowds; confronted by the presumption that Jesus be thought of as king. Telling us proudly of his palming off of Jesus onto Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas shooed us out of the courtyard - 'Go, go on, I've had enough of you.'

So up the steps through the private garden we climbed, to emerge on the esplanade of the Castle. Here we overheard Pilate dictating an email to Caesar, explaining what had happened and why. Pilate described his spies infiltrating the ranks of dissenting groups threatening to unleash unrest in the city and its surrounds. They tried to identify potential leaders to turn with offers of money and power, and thought that this prophet from Nazareth might be one such target. But he refused. Though Pilate was intrigued by this man and his seeming preference for peace, grateful that his arrival on a donkey was not street theatre ('I can't stand street theatre' - possibly my favourite line of the afternoon!), he could not stand by and let someone claim to be King of the Jews. So he was executed. And Pilate recognised the wasted opportunity to get to know Jesus better himself. The search for double agents continued. (Lou Davis, who composed and presented Pilate's piece, has put it on her blog).

From public space to private once again, we entered another garden below a church below the Castle. Here, Judas lamented his decision to turn Jesus over to the soldiers. Can I claim to be a pawn in the Divine plan? Can I claim that others are as much to blame, or more? But I do blame myself, I do feel the guilt, the shame. With Judas hoping there might be room in God's embrace even for him, Lezley then sang poignantly of the greatest love story ever told.

Another Mary came to meet us here in Edinburgh, wondering which version of her story we knew best: fallen woman, rich widow, victim of demons or mental illness, founder of a community of Jesus' followers. Whatever story we hold on to, the important story to remember is, she said, that she was transformed by meeting, knowing, loving and being loved by Jesus. Her brokenness was healed by his love. And whoever I might have been, Mary said to us in that garden, I am you.

Further down beneath the Castle we wove our way, to the site of executions long ago. Here, Jesus told his story. This was the story I composed and delivered, embodying it, letting it inhabit me, with its emotions of joy and hope, suspicion and fear, anger and love. Though a story mediated by technology is not the same as experiencing it in the embodied moment with its teller, this story you can hear for yourselves.

At the close, as I / Jesus sat and prayed, each character stepped forward one more time, and said I am (the gardener/ Mary / Peter / Caiaphas / Pilate / Judas / Mary) and I (think I'll see Jesus soon / am proud of my son / will be faithful / have had enough of this / am disappointed / hope I may be forgiven / am you), then walked away. Jesus stood again, said I am Jesus and I died as I live, for love, then returned to his posture of prayer as the crowd, too, left Jesus and walked away.

One of the crowd said to me after, on our way to the home of one of our actors for drinks and food and lingering in the moment, that he so much wanted to sit beside Jesus, it was hard to walk away, though he knew he must. I admit that this confronting aspect of the ending was precisely what I had hoped for.

We had not known what to expect, even those of us performing these stories. How would the others choose to bring their characters to life? How would each story resonate with the others? Who would gather, what conversations might unfold as we walked together between the stories?

The richness of the experience I have probably not captured - how much can you bottle an experience and present it again later, in words? I heard echoes of disappointment and the hope for forgiveness between some of the stories, and through others, saw the golden thread of love's transformation and hope shine and weave. It was the first time in a long time I felt confident before my audience - so much uncertainty as a storyteller/poet before an audience far from home in many of my performances so far in Edinburgh. Sharing this experience, collaborating on these familiar stories, with people I count as friends may well have been the deepest joy for me as I stretch my roots further down into the soil of this place in which I now live.

And now, as Holy Week continues, I wonder, where are you within its story this year? How are the uncertainty, the dashed expectations, the hope, the doubt, the fear, the love resonating with your story this time around?

The Palm Sunday Stooshie was an event in the Greyfriars Spark Festival, which continues throughout 2015.

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