After attending the Black Hills Passion Play in Spearfish, S.D., some 40 years ago, I had some questions. The 22-scene production complete with a huge cast of characters including dozens of live animals was set in an outdoor amphitheater over two blocks long, and built into a hillside seating 6,000 people. Josef Meier created this spectacular performance in 1939 by reenacting Jesus’ “Way of the Cross” more than 9,000 times until he retired in 1991. The play’s final curtain call was in 2008.
I wondered, what’s it like to play the part of the suffering Christ day after day for so many years? Did he take on the persona of the tortured Jesus? Did he carry the character into his daily life? What was he feeling and thinking as he walked those living Stations time after time? Did he get into the mind and heart of Jesus?
It gave me pause this week to consider the end of the human life of Jesus and the cross he bore up to Calvary. That’s because on March 12, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, completely unexpected since I’ve been cancer free for the past 14 years. After my surgery and chemo treatments were completed in 2001, I laid down that cross and never looked at the top of the hill again. But I did remain on the stage of my own passion play, taking on the roles of Simon and Veronica when I went back to full-time work at The Arch, the L’Arche community in Clinton. It was there where I could assist the core members in daily living tasks, where I attempted to make their loads a little lighter, where I could wipe their faces and bodies after bathing them, where they imprinted their dear personalities onto the rags of my heart.
Now I have to replay those Holy Week scenes, except others will assume the roles of Simon and Veronica for me. I hesitate to pick up my cross, shy away from letting someone help bear the burde
n or accept the cloth to wipe my face. Like the Roman soldier who forced Jesus to pick up his cross, this newest cancer has once again thrown a huge cross at me and, honestly, I have no choice but to pick it up and carry it. I just don’t know how far up the hill I have to go this time. I suspect it’s going to be a rocky climb, although at the time of this writing, I’m pre-surgery (scheduled for March 27), and we don’t know if I will need chemo or radiation, but I am having a mastectomy and bilateral reconstruction. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful, although exhausted, both mentally and physically. Suddenly I see road construction barricades, potholes wide and deep, and detour signs covering route markers. I’ve already had many tests and met with my two surgeons and other medical staff and I feel very confident in their abilities, as well as the major advancements in technology since the last time. I have no reason not to trust that God is present and that Simon will be standing at the side of the road when I’ve fallen just one too many times, and Veronica will offer her scarf to wipe the tears and mud from my face.
From Clinton I came to St. Paul to get a master’s in theology, and now I’m a certified spiritual director as well as mother of two married children and grandma of three. My path was clearly marked. The passion play had ended. Suddenly the curtain rises again and I face the detours, “Go Slow” signs, and rough roads, but I do believe that a line of people are waiting in the wings to play Simon and Veronica. The first two are my doctors, Dean and Amy. The house lights go down and the curtain opens. I walk over and pick up the cross. To be continued . . .
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton (1999-2009) and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)