Behold, the man! How playing Jesus is a Passion project for Peter

Peter Bruggeman plays Jesus in the Passion play that drew thousands to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy at Penrose Park in the NSW southern highlands on Good Friday. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

Catholics enacting Christ’s Passion need more than great costumes, fake blood and well-rehearsed lines to bring his saving sacrifice to life on Good Friday.

It can take months of prayer and planning to bring the Passion to thousands of spectators, and to prepare for the life-changing effect playing Jesus has on the soul of those who portray him.

Peter Bruggeman has played Jesus three times in the Passion play that drew thousands to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mercy at Penrose Park in the NSW southern highlands on Good Friday.

“Everyone I’ve spoken to who has portrayed him in the play gets spiritually attacked something fierce,” Bruggeman said.

“The previous one got sick, lost his job, had family emergencies left right and centre.”

“For me it’s typically in my own head, distractions, mental issues, trying to isolate me from others.

“I combat that by spending more time with people and I visit the monastery regularly to pray during Lent.

“Just before the play all the fear or anxiety just disappears. I know I’m in the right place at the right time and I have a duty to perform.”

Sydney Bishop Richard Umbers supports a revival of traditional forms of popular piety across the archdiocese of Sydney.

He said that with Passion plays the aim enlists a form of meditation that has helped Christians for centuries.

Behold, the Man! It’s not easy playing Jesus in Sydney’s famous Good Friday Passion Play at Penrose Park, but for Peter Bruggeman it’s become an Easter tradition. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Behold, the Man! It’s not easy playing Jesus in Sydney’s famous Good Friday Passion Play at Penrose Park, but for Peter Bruggeman it’s become an Easter tradition. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“Immersion experiences are becoming ever more popular but in the church’s tradition of the Passion play we have a real immersion into the life of Jesus and the opportunity to literally place yourself as one of the characters in these important scenes,” Bishop Umbers told The Catholic Weekly.

“Because of our very human need to see and hear and touch and feel, it’s great to be able to recreate something of the mystery of these events such that we can extend our contemplation—not only seeing and hearing but also feeling moved in our hearts.”

The hardest part for Bruggeman is the long Holy Thursday discourse, which is difficult to memorise.

Being shoved, whipped, jabbed with a spear and carrying his wooden cross while crowds jostle for a better view is also hardly a walk in the park.

“It gets very intense and I can only see a bit of what’s going on around me,” he said.

“I see people’s reactions, I’m aware of shouting, people pushing forward and being corralled back behind the ropes.

“The cross is maybe 20 or so kilos and the whip’s usually plastic, but stones and small rocks can get stuck to it, so I get hit with those sometimes.

“I don’t know if it’s adrenaline or not but I just keep going forwards and it always hurts less on the day than it does in the rehearsals.”

Penrose Park’s captain of the temple guard Nathaniel Tedesco played the role of Jesus for eight years and said it took him “to another level of faith.”

“It also made me a stronger person, partly because of the months of physical, mental and spiritual preparation required,” he said.

Ecce Homo: Behold the Man! Jesus is condemned by Pontius Pilate. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Ecce Homo: Behold the Man! Jesus is condemned by Pontius Pilate. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“Before that I was a Roman soldier and I found it more fun and easier to get into the role of beating up the person who was playing Jesus.

“This year it was really hard as a follower of Christ and remembering how I felt in that role to put the same aggressive energy into it.

“The highlight is seeing the amount of people who rock up to the play and how we are able to give them that real experience.

“So many families come and the kids absolutely love it. And lots come who aren’t your average churchgoer, I’ve once seen people cooking meat on a little barbeque as Jesus went by, it’s an interesting cross-section of people.”

Clare Slee has played Claudia, Pilate’s wife, since she was 18.

Now married and with two young children she has an even deeper appreciation of the woman who warned him to set Jesus free after a dream.

“She’s a very interesting character and a lot of people play her angry, but I think she cares about Pilate, she loves him and she’s just trying to get him to do the right thing amid these political issues,” she said.

“It’s a great experience honestly, it really brings the Scripture to life. It’s not just a story, it’s very real to me, and it’s a reminder that the Bible is full of real people just like us.”

Last year St Joseph’s Moorebank parishioner Amy Micallef was Our Lady in its Passion play, this year she was one of the women weeping as Jesus took his cross out of Jerusalem.

Devotional prayer, including the Rosary, is a major part of her preparation during Lent.

Christ's face is wiped by Veronica on the way to His crucifixion. Photo: Giovanni Portelli
Christ’s face is wiped by Veronica on the way to His crucifixion. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

“Last year despite the challenge of authentically portraying such profound sorrow, I felt compelled to use all of my prayers and preparation to share Our Lady’s love and pain with others.

“The most beautiful prayer that I asked Our Lady was for my heart to be pierced, even if it was the smallest amount, it would be a grace to mirror the seven ‘swords’ that pierced hers,” she said.

“Tears blurred my vision and the sounds of the whips and rain felt like how I imagined the real crucifixion to be.

“One poignant moment etched in my memory is the moment where Mary tenderly embraces Jesus’ face.”

Anthony El Tarraf has played Jesus in the past, and this year was a Roman soldier at St Felix de Valois Church, Bankstown.

“This is just a different form of prayer and not a Hollywood performance,” he said.

“Though I felt unworthy to play Jesus, I knew this was an opportunity given to me to not only show others the unfathomable love of God and help them contemplate it, but to feel and understand it better myself.

“It was no easy physical feat, the whips stung slightly, the cross was heavy, the route was long and arduous, I remember sweat dripping down my face and body, mixing with the fake blood.

“It’s hard to put into words the transformation I had from the experience. I think anyone with the opportunity to play Jesus will inevitably understand better (though obviously not perfectly) the love God has for us.

“When I was up on the cross in the reenactment and looked back at everyone, my heart just burst with love for them because I finally understood properly that God sees us as his own children, worthy of every bit of love he can give.”

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