About a month ago my son’s Sunday school teacher went to the director of religious education with a concern. She wanted Tommy to be in the stations of the cross play but didn’t know how to accommodate him.
Tommy is autistic. He struggles to communicate and be social. Even worse, he has terrible stage fright.
The DRE emailed me about the issue, wanting to know if we desired that Tommy simply sit out during the play, or if we wanted them to “dream up” a part for him. We all knew it wouldn’t be a speaking role.
It has always been my policy as a mother of an autistic child to push Tommy a bit. Of course, I didn’t want him left out. I wanted him in the theatrical experience designed for the whole fifth grade.
So they came up with a great idea — a step up from merely moving the set around and a step down from one of the speaking roles. Tommy would hold cue cards for the audience, indicating to the congregation that we were supposed to participate, and when and what to say.
This certainly wasn’t a huge role; Tommy’s friend Matt had gotten the role of Jesus.
When I found this out, I thought it was fitting for Matt to play Jesus. For years, Matt was the only child at Sunday school who would speak to Tommy; Matt would always say hello.
The morning of the play came, and first grade through fourth grade filed in. My husband, my mother and I took our seats on the folding chairs in the back of the gym.
The actors were dressed up in minimalist costumes. The women and Jesus’ mother were adorned with long head scarves. The soldiers wore red sashes around their waists and carried plastic swords. Jesus (Matt) was dressed in a white robe — an altar boy outfit. He was holding a makeshift crown of thorns.
The play began, and when the action started, I found myself weeping uncontrollably.
People who know me likely thought I was crying because my son was fitting in and participating with the rest of the children. There he was, holding a sign.
But that isn’t why I was so broken up. A dramatic play about the death and resurrection of Jesus portrayed by 11-year-olds simply got to me. It was, in a word, beautiful. They were so innocent, but so serious, as they took part in the holiest drama of human history.
Tommy’s sign said, “Because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.”
The other side said, “Jesus, teach me to follow you.”
He knew exactly when to raise the sign to prompt the audience for our moments of participation, and exactly when to turn it around for the other line.
The audience watched as Jesus was sentenced to death, given his cross, overburdened to the point of falling three times, comforted by his mother, nailed to the cross, taken down from the cross.
And then, Jesus rose from the dead.
Oh, Hallelujah! Never before had the Easter message meant so much to me.
Tommy had enabled all of us to join in and participate. This child who has so much trouble carrying on a normal conversation with his peers, his elders, with everyone, was leading the congregation in the spiritual words of the play.
God does make a way. He finds a way for those who need one.
May all of you experience the joy of the risen Jesus this Easter.
And may you savor the words from Tommy’s sign, “Because by your Holy Cross, you have redeemed the world.”
During the curtain call, Tommy made his way to the exact center of the line of actors and stage crew. Matt (Jesus) was way off to the side, out of the limelight. Tommy was proud of himself. For all he knew, he had been the star of the show.
In many ways, he was.
Laura Yeager’sreligious essays have appeared at Aleteia.org, The Liguorian magazine, Canticle magazine, BustHalo.com, Guideposts magazine and writersweekly.com. She also regularly writes blog posts about mental health for PsychCentral.com. Laura teaches writing at Kent State University and online Creative Writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York. She’s a graduate of The Writers’ Workshop at The University of Iowa.