In the waning light, Mary Magdalene comforted the body of the man who transformed much of the world with his life and death.
Hundreds gathered to express a mix of emotions at watching a re-enactment of Jesus of Nazareth’s suffering in his last hours. He was betrayed, charged with crimes even the governor thought bogus and punished with brutal efficiency by a cadre of Roman centurions.
Jesus was lowered gently to the ground by the previously heartless soldiers. They no longer persecuted him of the accusation of claiming to be king of the Jews. Two other men on crosses alongside, identified as thieves Dismas and Gestas, were also taken down. The skies thundered. Trees shook.
“Definitely spiritual,” said David Gonzalez, who performed the part of Jesus. “One hundred ten percent spiritual. It’s just faith. And it’s more. I thank God. I’m doing this for him and all the good things he’s done this past year.”
On April 19, Gonzalez and dozens of others performed the 14-step devotion that commemorates Jesus’ last day on Earth as a man. The Good Friday live-action event drew a tightly packed crowd of more than 600 to the manicured grounds surrounding St. Mary’s Catholic Church at North and Bethel avenues. The production, now in its seventh year, featured authentic costumes, deep attention to historic and biblical detail and truck-mounted speakers that enabled all to hear the story unfold.
And this year, one of the centurions rode a massive off-white war horse.
Before the spectacle began, Gonzalez prepared mentally for the role along with others in the church hall. With him was 14-month-old son Mateo and wife, Maria. Both parents had previously participated a couple years ago, but this was Gonzalez’s first time playing the role of his Savior and Mateo’s first-ever.
“Just got to concentrate and do the best job I can,” he said before the start. He smiled around Maria and Mateo, who got to talking when he saw his father walk away in an ankle-length period-correct off-white garment.
But Gonzalez soon got serious. His expression changed. Mateo noticed.
“They do pretty good work,” said Maria Gonzalez of the St. Mary’s actors. “There are a lot of people involved, and they’re good people. It’s teamwork.” Maria followed the action as it unfolded with Mateo and recorded it all on her phone.
She was hardly the only one. Many had their phones out. One man held up his phone so his mother could watch from home via her own cell. The image of her face popped up as a tiny window in the action. People crowded in as they followed the story, beginning with the Last Supper and continuing with Jesus’ arrest and false witness by the priests.
Lupe Rodriguez, who played a high priest last year, took on the role of an apostle and later that of Barabbas, who was pardoned as Jesus was convicted. Rodriguez and several other members of the cast discussed the 1961 movie starring Anthony Quinn for its stirring themes and a look at Barabbas’ life after his encounter with Jesus Christ.
Rodriguez also spoke of the apostles and how John, brother to fellow apostle James, was considered the youngest and “the only one to die of natural causes.” John died at age 93 or 94 as the last apostle to have witnessed the crucifixion. He never left Jesus during his final hours and was asked by Jesus to take care of Mary, his mother, after his death.
Samuel Velasco, one of the event’s organizers, marshaled his cast just before walking them all out of the hall to begin the event. He had gathered them all in a rough circle inside minutes before for a prayer, which ended with a recitation of “Our Father” in Spanish.
Juan Mirales performed his fourth year as Pontius Pilate. He removed his glasses when his time came to portray the Roman governor. “It’s good,” he said of the role. “It’s one of those things, you feel his (reticence to convict Jesus). He’s definitely torn.”
In Matthew 27:22 Pilate said after pardoning Barabbas, “’Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ And they all said, ‘Let him be crucified.’ And he said, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’”
Vic Leyva, who bulked up this year after regular trips to the gym, said being in shape helped to carry around the centurion’s outfit, which with the helmet and stainless steel armor, weighs about 30 pounds. After the show, he talked of the emotional toll the acting takes. And he spoke a little of his own family and the rawness that telling the story of Jesus exacts from everyone involved.
Jenny Estevez played one of the women in the crowd. “I wished we had more people sometimes,” she said. “(But) it’s always nice to see how it all comes together.”
The actors all knew their roles and, despite the enormity of the task, were able to transport their audience back a couple millennia to a corner of the Roman Empire where the death of one man continues to make headlines even today.
“Everybody just comes and knows what they’re doing,” Estevez said. “And there comes a point where you see it happening in that era.”
Rosita Ramirez played one of the “weeping women” who cry when they encounter Jesus dragging his cross on the way to the crucifixion. “I like everything,” she said about the production. “Everything that has to do with Jesus. It’s like you live in the moment. It’s very sad what he went through. I pray to him every morning for what he did for me.”
Juan Silva, one of the high priests, said simply, “You feel it.”
“My favorite part is where we’re presenting false witness,” he said. “I’m accusing Jesus of blasphemy. He really sees himself as the son of God. Back then, they didn’t want him to proclaim himself. And, no, I won’t be a nice guy.
“We assume the role.”
Silva mentioned how the cast four or five years ago performed the stations out in the community, going from one spot to another in Sanger to act out various scenes. “We had a lot of fun,” he said.
Velasco said the blood used this year was actually edible. The blood depicted the damage to Jesus by the centurions’ truncheons and the repeated beatings. The truncheons were thick, heavy ropes, and they did inflict damage. Bruises covered Gonzalez’s back and arms after the event ended.