Good Friday 2021 marked the radio debut of Centurion, a production we have been physically touring and developing since 2016. (Go check it out now if you haven’t already!). Centred around a fringe character in the biblical account of The Passion, Centurion is an attempt to retell the Easter story from a Roman perspective and in doing so, hopefully shedding a fresh light on the last act of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Unsurprisingly, the lion’s share of the drama is afforded to the titular Centurion, his Jewish servant Rachel and the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. In order of appearance, Jesus is far down the character list. Shocking stuff for an Easter play, right?
This was touched on during an interview with Premier Christian Radio, when I was asked the question “is it risky for Jesus to not be the central character in [an Easter] drama?”, and while I can’t fully remember my reply at the time, it’s given me a lot to think about! Why did we write such a small part for Jesus?
When we first had the idea to write an Easter play we encountered the same conundrum that many other writers have faced in our position. The story of Jesus’s death and resurrection is not only the most retold story of all time, but gospel themes like sacrifice, forgiveness/grace and resurrection have become so deep rooted in art and literature that it’s hard to comprehend an original angle, a justification for another retelling.
Plus it’s safe to say that artists have a long history of misrepresenting Jesus of Nazareth. The historically accurate dark skinned and rough-handed, unassuming 1st century Jewish carpenter is not the figure often depicted in paintings, sculpture or even cinema. More than anything we wanted to do justice to the person of Jesus and that meant not getting in the way with our own high minded ideas about what he might have said ‘between the lines’ of the biblical accounts.
Instead of giving a straight retelling of the biblical account, we decided to focus on some of the side characters of the story. Rereading the gospels, we explored the roles of the disciples, the wider followers of Jesus but also those opposed to him. The religious council stood out, as did the Roman authorities - Pilate and his wife - we asked the questions and did the digging, who were these people before they encountered Jesus and who were they afterwards? We landed on the Centurion who is only mentioned briefly in each gospel, particularly in Mark 15:9:
“When the centurion standing there in front of Jesus saw how He had breathed His last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!””
This Centurion figure was fascinating to us, and we pondered what it would take for not only a pagan but a military veteran/executioner to make such a definitive statement of faith.
We wondered how his Roman comrades spoke of this controversial rabbi, and how much of a threat Jesus posed to the occupying forces. What impact would his death and resurrection have on those who carried it out? It was clear that Jesus’s presence in Jerusalem had caused a stir at every level of society, even to those that hadn’t seen him or heard his teachings.
As we pursued these differing perspectives it became clear that the majority of the play would be focussing on these fringe figures rather than Jesus himself, but did that mean that Jesus was not the central figure in the play?- No! In fact every character is affected by Jesus - Pilate is threatened by him, Claudia is afraid, Rachel is devoted to him and the Centurion is challenged to his core by the potential of forgiveness.
We know the impact that Jesus can have on a person’s life because we’ve experienced it ourselves, even 2000 years after-the-fact. Jesus’s death and resurrection was like a heavy stone dropped in a still pool of water that created waves of change. These waves have reverberated through time and have affected every human being born since.
There are unlimited stories to be told about Easter; the most important event in history. Centurion only scratches the surface, and even if he isn't one of the main players, Jesus is at the centre of all these stories, all of our stories.