The cross at sunrise

Looking down, I could feel my stomach do a little flip. It’s a loooong drop to the parking lot from the top row of the end zone seats in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium. On Easter Sunday morning in 1958, I was performing there in Miami’s sunrise pageant.

A piece in The Miami Herald had caught my eye. It said that The Rev. V. Neil Wyrick, pastor of Miami’s Palmetto Presbyterian church, was recruiting actors to perform in Miami’s Easter sunrise pageant in the Orange Bowl. As a part-time actor, I loved the idea and eagerly showed up at the scheduled audition, where I was cast in the role of Dysmas, the repentant thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus.

My costume was a skimpy loin cloth that I jokingly called my diaper. That was all, and, yes, dressed that way, I was cold in those pre-dawn hours, even in Miami.

For the crucifixion scene, actors portraying Roman soldiers roughly threw me to the ground and laid me on a T-shaped cross made of 4×4 boards. My feet rested on a tiny platform, and I could grip screen door handles attached to the ends of the arms of the crude cross. The soldiers than carried me, prone on this cross, all the way to the top row of the end zone seats, swung me and the cross wide out over the parking lot below and dropped the cross into a wooden socket that provided a base for the cross. The same scene was taking place at the same time for the other criminal, then finally, the central cross on which the actor portraying Christ hung.

There the three of us writhed in agony for several minutes until the pageant ended, and we were able to return to field level, get into warm clothes, and swig some hot coffee.

It’s common for friends to ask one another about our favorite Christmas memories , less so for Easter, I suspect, but I always will recall in vivid detail my Easters in Miami in the late 1950s. I continued to play the repentant thief on a cross for a few more years, then one year the pageant was moved to Miami’s baseball stadium, and I was offered the role of Judas. I was delighted, of course. It was a major role, and of course, the costume was a lot warmer.

My love for Easter sunrise pageants originated when I was a child. My parents took my brother, sister and me to Easter sunrise pageants in Baltimore’s stadium. We all rose in the dark of the wee hours, dressed, ate breakfast, and walked about a mile to the stadium, an old wooden oval, predecessor to the larger, grander Memorial Stadium that rose on the site later to become home to the Colts and Orioles.

These Easter morning re-enactments were solemn and beautiful to see, with authentic-looking tomb and garden and colorful costumes. I still can see the tomb guards in their flowing red capes and shiny helmets.. But something is missing from the scenes in my memory. I don’t recall a crucifixion scene in those Baltimore pageants. Surely there must have been one. I wonder if they placed the crosses high, at the top of the grandstand.

We definitely did at the Orange Bowl.

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