As I have gotten older, I have fallen in love with history.
It’s fascinating to me to see the events surrounding the rise of an empire, to observe the timeline of how certain technologies developed over time and to see how a current circumstance was a product of various decisions along the way.
In terms of people, our upbringing and the context in which we were raised plays an important role in how we see the world, and it absolutely affects how we read the Scriptures.
Preparing for the Passion Play
I grew up in a church very similar to First Baptist Bryan, where I currently serve, in which there was an undeniably deep affection for the “big musical production.” There was everything from summer musicals to choir tours to Christmas pageants.
But, without a doubt, the crown jewel of them all was the Biennial Passion Play.
We would masterfully portray (we thought so, at least) the final week of Jesus’ life through drama and music. We would hold auditions for parts, hire a full professional orchestra and usually begin rehearsals six months in advance. There were at least half a dozen closets in our church that were dedicated to the ornate costumes that had been made.
The sanctuary was transformed by all of the carpenters and decorators of our congregation into an all-in-one Judea scene with various spaces for the Garden of Gethsemane, Temple Market, Upper Room, Golgotha and the Empty Tomb on the platform.
On performance nights, they would rub bronzer on our faces and skin so we would look more “Arabic” and cake on eyeliner and lipstick so our faces weren’t washed out by the bright lights of the stage.
Yet, of all the things I remember, I will never forget the scene that brought the Triumphal Entry to life.
The triumphal entry: The musical
It always began with a huge timpani roll and the entrance of Robert Martin, the guy who played Jesus, through the back doors of the sanctuary. He would march slowly toward the stage to meet the “crowd” (approximately 25–30 people) who were all over-dramatically pointing at him and singing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
When he finally made it to the stage, Jesus would pat the children (I was one!) on the head, and do this grab-the-shoulder/over-exaggerated-nod thing to every person he came into contact with, as if to say, “Yep, I see you. You’re healed.”
The group of guys who played the Pharisees would stand in the corner and shake their heads while overtly throwing up their hands in disgust. This would continue throughout the musical number until the moment came for the big finish: the entire company belting, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
As the final chord was sung, Jesus would find his mark at the center of the stage, turn to the audience and give the biggest grin I’ve ever seen while the rest of the crowd would “strike a pose.”
For many years, anytime I would read the account of the Triumphal Entry in one of the four gospels, that scene would play out in my mind. Thirty or so people in a dramatic, choreographed musical number. A fake-and-bake Jesus with too much eyeliner, patting children on the head.
I have the utmost respect for the leadership of that church, and I wholeheartedly resonate with efforts to bring the gospel to life through creative and engaging ways, but my perception of this event was definitely shaped by this portrayal.
I think, somewhere in my soul, I’d decided that this event was, at best, somewhat silly and, at worst, of little consequence.
I could not have been more wrong.
‘No ordinary week’
Some of the most powerfully rich passages and stories of Scripture are so familiar to us that we can fall prey to that familiarity and begin to skim, overlook or, God forgive us, yawn at them. We live in a time where the message of Christ is cast into the fray alongside works of fiction and fantasy, and it is so easy to shake hands with unbelief and disinterest.
But, thanks be to God that we have not put our trust in a work of fantasy or fiction but in the Word of Truth, a Word that Psalm 119 describes as “firmly fixed in heavens forever.”
This year, March 25 is the first day of my favorite week of the entire year. Historically, it is known as “Palm Sunday,” the beginning of Jesus’ final week, the day when Jesus Christ rode triumphantly into Jerusalem, marching boldly to Calvary, to end the tyrannical rule of sin and death once and for all through his glorious resurrection. The final week of Jesus’ life was full of the most massive and crucial events, and their significance cannot be overstated.
This was no ordinary week back then, and it will not be around here either.
Our prayer for you as you walk through the different services and events that your churches have planned is that you would lay your heart open before the Lord and let him breathe new life and passion for who he is and what he has done through his great son, Jesus.
Find time to get on your knees and seek the Living God. Discover again what they discovered 2,000 years ago.
This was no ordinary week, and we are loved by an extraordinary Savior.
Jason Dunton is the contemporary worship arts pastor at First Baptist Church in Bryan, Texas, where he lives and loves with his wife, Joanna, and daughters, Penelope and Annabelle.