I’ve got a strange and I think fairly unique confession to make: I’ve played Jesus several times in my life. Robes, hair, beard — the whole kit and kaboodle.
When I was in junior high, I attended a Christian summer camp. One year, the staff had each cabin put on a different scene from Jesus’ life at different locations around the campground. Birth, baptism, feeding the 5,000 — that sort of thing. Pretty much a Stations of the Cross, with a lot more giggling.
My cabin got the big crucifixion scene, and I got tied to a big outdoor wooden cross, with a sheet covering my bathing suit, and ketchup on my hands and feet. I’m pretty sure I didn’t get picked for my acting ability; in fact the opposite was probably true — I had no lines. My job was just to hang there.
It came off pretty well, though the preacher kind of forgot about me. He launched into his sermon with me hanging behind him until he realized and gave me a chance to be helped down. But I stayed in character, even if the ketchup was starting to itch.
About 15 years later, while living in Denver, I was again picked to play Jesus. Again, not for my acting ability (again, no lines); I was the only guy at our small church with shoulder-length hair and a beard. It was a Last Supper re-enactment, with each of the disciples giving monologues about their internal struggles.
This time I wasn’t hung on a cross. All I had to do was walk in, sit and look somber, and then walk slowly out (trying not to trip because the spotlight was blinding me.)
Both experiences were very strange: Being such the focus of attention, without anything to do; having so many hopes, beliefs, and even faith projected upon me, even in a small way, even with everyone knowing it was me, was humbling.
I felt a part of something bigger than myself and yet I also felt kind of used: People were using me to help them reach the divine, and something divine was using me to reach people. And that felt kind of uncomfortable — giving up control like that — and I didn’t like it.
After the last show, a young girl asked for my autograph, and I could tell she wasn’t getting the whole “reality vs. acting” thing and it kind of freaked me out. That weekend I shaved my beard and cut my hair.
Years later, I’m a pastor of a small church and I find myself playing Jesus again, sometimes. Often it is a hospital bedside. I might ad lib a few lines, but often I don’t have any real lines; there is nothing left to say. And so I just sit and hold a hand.
And part of me hates having no control, hates not being able to do anything to fix things.
But another part of me has come to accept not having control, and realize I never did have much control. And it isn’t just OK to let people project a little bit of their hopes and faith onto me, and to let a little sense of the divine to reach back through me. It isn’t just okay, but it is a gift.
And I’m not specially cut out for this role. I don’t look anything like Jesus, and I’m still not much of an actor.
This is a role we can all play for each other. There are no set lines. All we have to do is be willing and be present. And a divine presence will come.