I’m not exactly sure anymore whose idea it was or where the idea came from. I doubt that my church was the first to do it, but my church would have been among the first to try it. This was in the early 1990s.
And that’s astonishing when you think about it, since mainline churches in the U.S. aren’t known for bold liturgical moves – or bold moves of any kind.
The idea I’m referring to is the chancel drama widely known as the “Living Last Supper.” While the script for the drama seems to vary a great deal from church to church, the visual part is fairly consistent. And that’s because the whole point of the thing is to end up with a visual tableau that closely resembles the Leonardo da Vinci painting which survives today (barely) in Milan, Italy.
I did a quick Google search just now and discovered not only that the “Living Last Supper” is widely performed in churches throughout the U.S., but that production values – lighting, costumes, set design, etc. – have dramatically increased.
Looking back, my church’s first attempt was amateurish in many ways and succeeded mostly because of its sincerity.
About six weeks or so before Maundy Thursday, I remember finding 12 men (13 if you count Jesus, though his was mostly a non-speaking role) who would play Jesus’ disciples. I don’t recall that anyone turned me down.
We had no script, as I recall – only a sense of where the drama needed to end. So, each man essentially wrote his own part. Little is known for sure about the disciples, but legends abound. And with a little creative license, a script of sorts soon came together.
On Maundy Thursday evening each disciple appeared, stood alone in the spotlight, spoke movingly about who he was and why he followed Jesus, and then took his place behind the table. After the 12 had taken their place, the lights went out for a few seconds, and when they came up, voila! A near-perfect match for the painting.
That first night I distinctly remember a gasp from the congregation, an audible in-take of breath, as the image registered.
Since that first attempt, one other church I have served has presented the drama, but the result is always the same – yes, the audiences love it, but the actors themselves have a transforming experience. It’s one thing of course to commit a few lines to memory and, with no community theater experience, stand in front of a few hundred spectators and recite those lines.
But even more astonishing is to enter into the experience – to be Peter, or John, or Judas, to embody those roles so completely that they can imagine themselves being there, sharing the meal, and – this is the thing – betraying their teacher and friend.
After that first performance I went back to the “make-up room” and sat with the men for nearly an hour. No one wanted to move. I think they were in awe of what they had done.
And so was I.
(Photo: According to Wikipedia, da Vinci’s Last Supper “is a late 15th-century mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. It is one of the world’s most famous paintings, and one of the most studied, scrutinized, and satirized.” It’s also in better condition today than the photo suggests. The latest restoration was an extensive one.)