Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. (Matthew 28:5-8)I am a theatre artist. So, for this Ash Wednesday mediation we are going to delve a bit into theatre history. This makes sense in this context because if we travel back to the birth of Western theatre, we end up in church. We are going back to before any great schisms and church splits, before the Catholic Church and the Orthodox church broke apart, which means way before Luther nailed anything to any doors. Pre denominations. Pre non-denominations. We’re at around 970AD, about 500 years before Gutenberg invented the printing press.
Now, that printing press fact is important because we all know that with its invention came the unlocking of massive barriers in society, opening doors to literacy for the average bloke, marking a turning point in history and kicking into gear social and industrial revolution. No wonder there were church splits coming. But that's off topic- we’re before that. The average person still can’t read. The Christian church is liturgical and that liturgy is in Latin. Some of the liturgy is sung antiphonally- kind of like a call and responsive reading, but to the tune and pace of a musical chant- and much of it is simply spoken by the priests.
I don’t know Latin. I have a masters degree and a full time job and live in the wealthiest nation in the world and I do not know Latin. So, imagine the folks sitting in church in 970AD, before the invention of the printing press, listening to liturgy in Latin. They didn’t understand it either. And they couldn’t open their own Bible to follow along or bring up their Latin to English translation app. Basically, the gospel was very difficult to disseminate. The average Christian sitting in church did not have the opportunity to hear and understand the very Word in which they believed.
And then came Bishop Ethelwold of Winchester, England. Now, we can’t be sure if he was the one who really started what I’m about to tell you, but he was the one who wrote the Regularis Concordia, a book of rules sent to the English Benedictines giving directions on how to stage the very birth of, as I said at the beginning, Western theatre. In church. You see, the priests knew that their congregations didn’t understand the liturgy. And they didn’t like it. They wanted to make it more accessible, more engaging. So, I kid you not, they decided to act it out. Three priests took a short part of the Mass called with Quem Quaeritis, the “Whom Seek Ye,” and they divvied up roles. One stood on the high alter- that’s the angel- and the other two approached him from the back of the cathedral- they’re playing the women who went to Jesus’ tomb. As they reached the front of the church the angel/priest on the alter said the first line: Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, O Christicole? Whom seek ye in the sepulcher, O Christian women? The two priest/women replied: Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, O caelicolae. Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, O heavenly one.
And there we have it. Out of the question “whom seek ye,” theatre is born. From this beginning, came the development of playlets, adding other Biblical scenes. Soon clergy added multiple platforms and the congregation would move from one to the next to see each successive scene. When the platforms and facades became too elaborate they were moved onto pageant wagons which included a dressing area for costume changes and soon the wagons had moved out of the church building and the plays had expanded to include non-Biblical stories spoken in the vernacular of the people. Traveling theatre troupes popped up, and the rest is theatre history.
As a theatre artist I am drawn to the fact that the very root of my profession is grounded in asking questions. More importantly, as both a theatre artist and a Christian, I am challenged by the question “whom seek ye?” And here we are at the beginning of Lent: a time of reflection and meditation, a time of mourning for the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice, a time of anticipated joy and celebration because the sacrifice brings redemption and reconciliation. It is in the 40 days that we have between now and Easter that we are given pause to ask ourselves: who do I seek?
40 days. Christ took 40 days too. Well, he didn’t take them really. He didn’t set aside time to fast and pray. In Mark 1:12 we’re told that after Jesus’ baptism “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” That Jesus had to be driven out tells me that, just maybe, he didn’t anticipate this as a peaceful time of reflection and mediation comparable to the Lenten season. No- this was temptation. Head to head with Satan. According to Luke 4, Jesus “ate nothing all that time and was very hungry.” In Mark’s account (Mark 1:12-13) we’re told Jesus “was out among the wild animals...” Jesus has this incredible baptism moment with his cousin, the Spirit of God descends upon him, and then out he’s driven into the Judaean desert surrounded by wild animals, hungry, and with Satan overtly tempting him for 40 days.
What is striking to me is not that both Jesus’ temptation and Lent are 40 days long. That’s not why I bring this up. Its good thematic planning on the part of the people who invented and instituted Lent- which was in the very early days of the established Church, a while before the birth of theatre and a good long time before the invention of the printing press. And, by the way, Lent isn’t 40 days long just because of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus’ 40 days put him right in line with Moses and Elijah. Remember, Moses spent 40 days fasting on Mt. Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:28). Elijah walked for 40 days and nights to reach Mt. Sinai (1 Kings 19:8). What is striking about Jesus’ 40 day stint to me is that it is at the beginning. This 40 days of temptation- it is the kick-off for Jesus’ ministry. It is the starting place for Christ’s journey towards the garden and the cross and the tomb. The chronology of Lent-Palm Sunday-Holy Week-Good Friday-Easter always makes me think that the temptation of Christ was after his ministry- that it was a break from the hubbub of healing and preaching; a chance for Jesus to catch his breath before the final, horrifying and then exuberant stretch of his earthly work. But, no! It wasn’t a break and a breather- it was temptation. And it wasn’t after his ministry- it was before. It was not to prepare for death, but to prepare for daily ministry.
Which, in the context of our busy and complicated lives, may sound a more honest reflection on what your Lenten season may look like. Lets be honest- in the next 40 days we must still navigate conflict and cook dinner. We must still drive in traffic and respect our bosses. All the pressure and responsibility of life continues bustling itself against our attempts at reflection and mediation and preparation for Easter. But Jesus didn’t just go on a retreat in preparation for his earthly ministry either- no, no, he was tempted. Just like us. Just as we are bound to be in the next 40 days.
So, this Lenten season is not really a time to be set aside. It isn’t a time when we are to be especially Christian, especially reverent. It is not just a time for giving up meat or alcohol or revisiting your New Year’s resolution of working out every day. Lent is an opportunity. It is a chance in the church calendar to, in the midst of our continuing, busy and bustling lives, check in that we are living every day in preparation (and anticipation!) for the work and ministry of Christ. Because Christ’s work and ministry? It is all around us every day too, in the midst of that bustle and traffic.
I wish that when I asked myself “whom seek ye?” it was a simple answer. I wish it for the sake of my relationships that need redeeming, for the work to which I am called, for the prospect of my influence on our unborn baby. I wish that I could peer into myself and say without hesitation: I seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen one; I seek him and find him every day.
Yet, I fear that instead of the women at the tomb, I am more like those who seek Jesus in John 18. The lines are the same, though played by different parts. In verse 4 Jesus himself asks a band of soldiers “whom do you seek? and they answer him in verse 5 with “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus asks again in verse 7, and the soldiers again reply “Jesus of Nazareth.” And so they are- they seek Jesus, but to crucify him.
I fear that I can answer “Jesus” to this vital question too, but that all too often, through my actions, it is on my way to crucifying my God. In my actions, in my thoughts and words, rather than seeking to find and praise a risen savior, I am seeking him in the midst of my continued sin. I seek the admiration of my peers and the renowned of my accomplishments. I seek the comfort of my possessions and dominance in relationships. I refuse forgiveness and I justify my pride. And with all these actions, I confirm the necessity of Christ’s sacrifice. I seek him because I know so deeply my need for the redemption of his death and resurrection, because I know that when I am tempted, I am too often swayed.
This Lenten season, I pray that we each take this opportunity to question whom we seek. On Good Friday, may we remember our role as the betrayers and the crucifiers. And I pray that come Easter we may also each rejoice with the women at the tomb, seeking our risen savior and finding his tomb empty, celebrating that though we need Christ’s sacrifice, it is finished. We are redeemed. I pray that in the next 40 days we would find ourselves tempted and triumphant with Jesus, active in his ministry, and grateful for every opportunity he gives us to acknowledge our desperate need for him.