While wearing a crown of thorns, Jesus of Nazareth is bloodied and brutalized by Roman soldiers, forced to carry a cross through vocal and violent crowds. One man in the audience springs from his seat to aid the Savior by bearing the weight of the cross on his own shoulders.
This is just one scene in this year’s “Death of the Messiah,” a Passion Play that brings to life the story of Jesus Christ.
Understanding the story and conveying the message is the mission of the local nondenominational theater troupe, Companions of Jesus of New Mexico, who has been performing the play for the past 24 years.
The Passion Play, which involves about 60 cast and crew members, follows the last days of Jesus’ life on Earth, through his trial, crucifixion, death and resurrection.
Clara Garcia | News-Bulletin photos
Every year, rehearsals begin in January to prepare for the performances during Holy Week.
For Frank Costa, who has portrayed Jesus Christ for three years in “Death of the Messiah,” the experience has been life-changing.
He remembers the day he went to his parents’ home in Los Lunas after work. His mother, Pam, who is the sound manager for the play, asked him if he would want to audition for the role of Jesus.
“I thought, ‘Why not? I’ll give it a shot and see what happens,’” Costa remembers. “I went in, read the script, and they said, ‘You’re perfect; you got the role.’”
During the Last Supper, Jesus passed a cup of wine to his disciples saying, “This is my blood.” Jesus’ words refer to the crucifixion he was about to suffer in order to atone for humankind’s sins.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Pontius Pilate, portrayed by Henry Rau, took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd after condemning Jesus to death.
Carrying the cross up to Mount Calvary, Jesus, is beaten and bloodied.
According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” There appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him.
Costa said there hasn’t been one performance that he hasn’t been nervous.
“How am I supposed to portray the perfect person,” he said. “Jesus is Jesus. We can never be him, so I pray to him to work through me so I can actually try to channel the character.”
Costa admits he might not be the best actor, but hopes the Passion Play will affect at least one person.
“I just do it for service,” Costa said. “I’m offering my talent, and if He’s calling me to do it, then let’s go. I feel it’s my mission to help spread the message, and I’m 100 percent in this.”
As a cast member, Costa said he first went into this thinking it was a job. It was during his first performance three years ago he realized it was much more.
“It was during the scene when I was carrying the cross and I fell,” he said. “I heard someone in the audience kind of snicker. Immediately, I thought to myself this guy was being rude.
“While I was upset, thinking it wasn’t a time to laugh, I realized I just got a small glimpse of what Jesus must have felt,” he said. “That’s when I started to tear up and became emotional.”
Mother Mary, in front, portrayed by Maggie Montoya, prays to God after her son, Jesus Christ, is crucified and dies at Mount Calvary.
Costa had realized this was what happened to Jesus, having experienced everyone laughing and mocking him and even crying for him. That’s when his mindset changed and he found his purpose — to help spread the word.
Pat Fink, who started acting in the Passion Play in 2011 with her husband, Jack, portrays Rachel.
“What Rachel does is she tells Peter that she’s seen him before with Jesus and knows he’s one of his followers,” Fink says. “He gets befuddled and denies his friendship with Jesus.”
Fink loves being involved in the play, saying she worked with the play’s executive director, Therese Hidalgo, at Presbyterian Urgent Care in Belen for many years.
“I love doing this,” she says. “It teaches people about Jesus and what he had to go through and what he sacrificed for us. If he hadn’t sacrificed for us, we’d be in a real mess.”
During a recent dress rehearsal of “Death of the Messiah,” the cast and crew continue to practice their lines, handmade costumes are still being fitted to the actors, and the lighting, sound effects and music is being adjusted for every scene.
The crucifixion scene is particularly well done with the gentle way they bring Jesus’ body down from the cross to the arms of his grieving mother, Mary.
Jerry Bench, who holds multiple roles as Barabbas, Lazarus and Matthew, also followed his mother, Bonita, to the Passion Play, but when Hidalgo saw his beard and hair, she cast him on the spot.
“It gives me a way to see how it was back in those days,” Bench said of the play. “It gives me a different perspective — it was a different day, a different time. Things weren’t so fast paced as it is today. It was a different way of life.”
Bench invites everyone to come out to witness “Death of the Messiah” and to “learn about Jesus, and what Easter is really all about — His resurrection.”
If you go:
♦What: “Death of the Messiah” Passion Play
♦When: 4 p.m., Sunday, April 2, at the Los Lunas High School auditorium
♦When: 4:30 and 7:30 p.m., Good Friday, April 7, at the Belen High School auditorium
♦Cost: Admission is free, but donations will be accepted
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.