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There but for the grace of God . . .

posted 17 Apr 2017, 15:03 by Fran Brady

It was sunny but chilly: Easter Saturday in Scotland. A well-happit crowd had gathered in Princes Street Gardens: stoical Presbyterians and Methodists; excited Charismatics and Baptists; buggy-pushing families; escaping toddlers; larking teenagers; bewildered tourists; and blasé Edinburgh residents (very hard to impress people who live in a city of some eleven annual festivals).

There was music playing, unidentifiable but doing its job of raising the expectancy temperature. Something was about to happen. Slowly, dressed-up people filtered through the crowd towards a green sward which had market tables heaped with produce, pottery and rolls of cloth. The characters looked like they had stepped out of first century Palestine. Which they had - although, they could probably still stroll some of the streets there today and not look out of place. The headgear, particularly, seems to have changed little. 

Soon the dialogue began with references to The Teacher, The Rabbi, The Healer, the man who was making the headlines and, incidentally, making himself royally unpopular with the Jewish establishment of the day. The Edinburgh Easter Play – now in its tenth year – was underway, a medieval-mystery-play format, performed in the open air with an ambulant audience following the cast as it moves from location to location, scene by scene. 

The script was a triumph: it managed at once to make huge assumptions about the biblical literacy of its audience, with allusions and quotations from the New Testament interwoven with prophecies from the Old; and to be entertaining for even the least biblically literate watchers, developing the characters of Jesus’ followers to create sparky encounters and humourous interactions, enhanced by some pawky Scots accents.  

As the well-known story progressed from its cheery, optimistic beginning to its devastating crux and astonishing denouement, the mood of the crowd altered. Everyone knew what was coming but the playwright kept the dramatic tension by exploring the motives and manoeuvres of the men who wrought Jesus’ downfall. All too easy to depict them as self-seeking autocrats resenting a rival leader, or as mere puppets of the forces of darkness. What emerged was a group of leaders whose power had been reduced to a very thin blue line indeed, a tightrope stretched between the exigencies of their own ancient laws and the short fuse of the occupying Roman army, which allowed them to practice their religion thus far and no farther. Basically, they were damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t. Every nation that has ever lived through a brutal occupation (and we are one of the few in Europe who did not during the Second World War) can identify with their dilemma. Christian tradition depicts those Pharisees as self-serving, power-hoarding collaborators. There but for the grace of God . . ? 

An old, old story that prods our twenty-first century awareness. Christians are fond of asking: WWJD (What Would Jesus DO?) But another question arises for us all, Christians or not: WWWDP? (What Would We have Done if we’d been the Pharisees?)