The arrival of Easter always brings a cascade of memories of dramatic pageants for me. As children, my sister, brother and I loved to attend the annual sunrise pageant acted out on the grassy field in Baltimore’s municipal stadium. The Roman soldiers wore flowing capes, bright red, and had shiny metal helmets.
Years later, as a single man in my 20s, I answered a casting call for a similar re-enactment being staged in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium. The Rev. Neil Wyrick, pastor of a fast-growing suburban congregation at Palmetto Presybyterian Church, produced and directed the pageant that was to run for several years starting in the late 1950s. I was cast as Dysmas, the repentant thief who hung on the cross on Jesus’ right side. My slight size and weight probably helped to land me that particular role.
To accommodate the three crosses, workers built deep wooden sockets in the top row of the end zone at one end of the stadium. The three of us headed for crucifixion wore only loin cloths — we referred to them as diapers — and shivered in the chilly darkness as we waited for our big scene. When the time came, actors portraying soldiers laid us on our large wooden crosses — the thieves’ crosses were T-shaped — and lifted us high in the air before slamming our crosses into those sockets.
I still clearly remember looking down at the parking lot far below as my cross was being swung out in space before being dropped into place. It’s a long way down, but I trusted these guys. I happily played this role for several years and eventually was “promoted” to the role of Judas.
Now a much older man, I no longer hang from crosses in Easter pageants, but tomorrow morning I will sing in worship with my church choir, joyfully proclaiming with others our joy at the resurrection of Christ and what it promises for Christians who believe. And as I listen to that familiar scripture reading, in my mind’s eye I will see again those Roman guards and feel the shock of my own thief’s cross being placed in its socket. The memory of this experience will never leave me, and I am grateful for it.