First published in The Record, March 30, 2018
Rough city picks “a jesus that can take a beating”
The Roman soldier walked up to Jesus in the boiler room of the church. He had three things he wanted to say.
“I’m gonna teach you a lesson! You’re gonna get whipped!” said Felix Parraga, who wore a hand-sewn leather tunic and a plastic helmet painted gold. “I like your hair.”
“Thanks, man,” said Justin Carrasco, the actor playing Jesus. “They straightened it, and then gave me extensions.”
About 1,800 people gathered Friday at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist campus in downtown Paterson for this year’s Passion Play, when Christians around the world re-enact the painful last days of Jesus.
Each community’s celebration is distinct, in its way, from all the others. Some are intensely literal, as in the town of San Pedro Cutud, in the Philippines, where three penitents get crucified every year, with actual nails driven through their actual hands.
Others are cerebral. This Good Friday in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Bruce Stewart gave a lecture to hundreds of people at the National Gallery of Art about the abstract expressionist artist Barnett Newman, whose work “The Stations of the Cross” consists of 14 canvasses all arranged in a circle, each covered in stripes of solid black and white paint.
In Paterson, the procession felt like the city itself: Improvised, often funny, serious about its duties and rough around the edges.
The devout in some cities around the world begin planning the Passion Play just days after Easter. Rehearsals consume most of the year.
In Paterson, organizers phoned Carrasco and asked if he would like to play the role of Jesus two weeks ago.
“They wanted a Jesus who could take a beating,” said Carrasco, 21, a Paterson native who is studying music education at Kean University, and who weighs 235 pounds. “I feel like I’m doing something important.”
The first and only full rehearsal happened on Wednesday night, two days before Good Friday.
A last-minute venue change
Most years, the re-enactment of the crucifixion is followed by a scripted play. This year, due to the hurry-up nature of the preparations, organizers decided the play could be skipped.
“We just want to keep the focus nice and tight,” said Hector Jimenez, who led the team. “We want to help everyone remember the suffering that Jesus experienced.”
Another reason for this year’s plus-sized Jesus and slimmed-down schedule: Originally, organizers had planned to hold the entire event inside the cathedral, which reopened last June after six years of renovation.
At the last minute, someone realized that was a bad idea.
“They were afraid I’d damage the new marble floors by dragging this heavy cross around,” Carrasco said.
Instead the procession began with the cast members and their friends joking around inside the boiler room of the Bishop Frank J. Rodimer Center, a gymnasium located immediately behind the cathedral.
“You look like an egg,” Chris Torres, 20, said to his best friend, Bryany Alvarez, who was tapped to play the role of Mary.
“That’s not nice,” said Alvarez, 20, who was wearing a black cape and a robe with white fringe. “I look like a nun!”
With no experience as an actor and little time to prepare, Alvarez laid out her plan for getting into character.
“I’m going to keep my eyes wide open, and try not to blink. Hopefully the wind can get in my eyes and make me cry,” she said. “I know I’m supposed to be sad, but I’m too excited.”
As the time for the ceremony drew near, the procession of mourners, soldiers and Jesus bunched into a stairwell near the back door to the gym. Jimenez tested the chain around Carrasco’s wrists and neck with a yank.
The steel links fell loose in his hands. Jimenez stood back, surprised.
As the band started playing, Jimenez unspooled the entire chain, re-wrapped it and pulled it taut.
“You’re pretty good at this,” Carrasco said.
“It’s what I did for a living,” said Jimenez, who served as a detective in the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office until he retired.
Rainwater and fake blood
They walked into the gymnasium, down the center aisle, down three steps and out into the rain. Carrasco stood barefoot. He wore a tan tunic, but he did not shiver in the chill. He knelt, wedged his right shoulder beneath the crossbeams of the cross, stood up, and began to walk.
Enrique Sanchez and Edgar Rodriguez were dressed as Roman soldiers. They were assigned roles as Jesus' primary torturers. As Carrasco dragged the heavy cross down the double yellow lines of Grand Street, Sanchez and Rodriguez whipped him with thick lengths of cotton that gradually turned pink with rainwater and fake blood.
“Beat him! Let’s go!” Sanchez yelled as the mourners shuffled past Taqueria Brenda Lee, 3.
Three blocks east on Grand Street, one block uphill on Mill Street, two blocks west on Slater Street, one block downhill on Main Street, the procession made its way through downtown Paterson, gathering hundreds of onlookers as it passed.
Returning to the cathedral, Carrasco reached the ninth Station of the Cross, where, according to Scripture, Jesus fell for the third time.
Carrasco went for it. He flung his cross to the right and flopped onto his belly, resting his left cheek against the asphalt. His lungs heaved. By now the rain had let up, but the combination of sweat and all the blows from the wet whips made his tunic cling to his torso.
Walking back into the Radimer Center, three soldiers threw Carrasco onto the stage and stripped off his tunic, leaving just a short white wrap around his waist. Finally he lay on a cross and gripped two metal handles. The soldiers tipped the cross upright. Carrasco, high on the stage like Jesus on Calvary, looked down from his mock crucifixion.
As he pretended to die, Carrasco yelled out the ceremony’s only scripted sentence.
“Father!” he yelled. “In your hands I entrust my spirit.”
Six men dressed as soldiers strained to lower Carrasco back to the stage, into a wide white hammock of silk and lug him backstage. Out of public view, Carrasco stood up and inspected the damage, which included dime-sized welts across his back.
“They got me pretty good with those whips,” he said. “I didn’t know they were going to rip my clothes off like that.”
After a little searching, Carrasco found his red duffel bag, and inside his smartphone. The first text he read was from his girlfriend.
“Great job! So proud of you!” it read. “Now go home and wash your hair.”