“Lent Through the Ages: The Greatest Story Ever Told”

February 18, 2018


Robin McGonigle
University Congregational Church
Feb. 18, 2018

“Lent Through the Ages… Greatest Story Ever Told”
Psalm 34:18 and Isaiah 61:1

I watched The Greatest Story Ever Told again last week. It premiered on Feb. 15, 1965 – 53 years ago this week. It had quite a cast, including Charlton Heston, Telly Savalas, John Wayne, Pat Boone, Sidney Poitier, Shelley Winters, Angela Lansbury, Jamie Farr, Martin Landau… and on and on. Some critics noted that the cast actually detracted from the story of Jesus. The original length of the movie was 4 hours and 20 minutes, a very long movie, but a relatively short period to cover Jesus’s birth, life, death and resurrection.

During Lent (which started on Wednesday), we are exploring the various artists who have depicted the story of Jesus’ passion in their art, music, film, and drama. Although they all used the same material for their inspiration, each artist chose a different method and theme on which to focus.

In The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens, the producing director, alternated images of Jesus in the temple with Palm Sunday. Outside, people were waving palms and singing praises to Jesus. Flash to the temple, where Jesus was angry and overturning the tables of merchants. Flash to the waving palms and singing. It was a stark reminder of the juxtaposed story ….
• Born in poverty in an animal stable, while angels sang and kings brought expensive gifts
• A gentle carpenter who was accepting of all, yet brutally murdered
• A charismatic teacher who roamed the countryside, who was also seen as a threat to kings and governments

This is the mystery of the Lenten season. It starts with Ash Wednesday when we remember that we are made from dust and return to dust. Nothing could be more humbling. We are broken and yet blessed. The Lenten season ends with Easter resurrection when we remember that death does not have the final word.

As I watched The Greatest Story Ever Told, I was struck by this dichotomy. In the scene when Judas betrays Jesus, he tells the Sanhedrin about Jesus…. “I have been his friend for 3 years. Promise no harm will come to him. Jesus is the purest, kindest person I know. His heart is so gentle. Old people worship him. Children adore him.” This is Judas betraying Jesus. What irony.

Later, when Jesus carries his cross down the Via Del a Rosa, the scene flips between Jesus and Judas.
• Jesus is surrounded by people weeping. He is moving along the streets with desperate courage.
• Next is a desolate scene with Judas pacing in a city square. It is dark and he is alone. He paces this way and then back. He is desperate and lonely.
• Switch back to Jesus as he meets Simon of Cyrene, who helps him carry the cross. Jesus is headed to death, but he is not alone.
• Judas continues to pace. The city square is lit only by a fire. There is no one to be seen and Judas is more and more animated and scared.
• Jesus is hung on the cross. There are people being executed with him. They talk amongst themselves. Jesus speaks to his mother and his God.
• Judas grows more desperate and is mesmerized by the fire in the city center. He is agitated and haunted.
• At the same moment, they die. Judas takes his own life by falling into the fire. Jesus dies after offering forgiveness and surrendering his life into God.

Henri Noewen said, “Our brokenness is truly ours. Nobody else’s. Our brokenness is as unique as our chosenness and our blessedness.” I’ve been thinking about that this week. I was talking with someone this week. She noted that it was 4 years that day since her husband died. I could see in her eyes that the anniversary was poignant and painful, in some ways like it was yesterday. I mumbled a few things that I thought would help. Later, when I thought about it, I wished I had asked her to tell me about her husband… tell me his story. Tell me how he lived and what he loved. Tell me about their marriage and their lives together. I missed the opportunity to hear the joy in her pain; the love in her loneliness. I missed the Lenten theme of juxtaposition – of love and loss – of death and life.

There is a great story behind The Greatest Story Ever Told that involves director George Stevens and superstar John Wayne in the role of a Roman centurion. His one line in the picture was: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” After a couple of attempts at the seemingly simple line, Stevens gently told him, “Duke, what we need in this line is something more. Look up at the man and give us some awe.” Wayne nodded affirmatively, Stevens signaled the cameras to roll, and Wayne said, “Awww, truly this man was the Son of God.”

You know, our lives are full of brokenness and awe. We have broken relationships, broken promises, and broken expectations. Brokenness is an inevitable part of life. We live in brokenness. The questions, though, for people of faith, is how we can live in brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful. “Each of us,” writes Henri Noewen, “like Eucharistic bread, needs to be taken, blessed, broken and given if we want to be most fully who we are meant to be as loved people”. The biggest part of that struggle is the acceptance of our own unique brokenness. Psalm 34:18 reminds us though, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.”

But sometimes, we get brokenness confused with worthlessness. When an item breaks, it can lose its value. Broken dishes, broken windows, broken furniture, these become unusable in their broken form. But broken lives and broken hearts do not become unusable or worthless. Our brokenness can actually cause us to be unique and blessed.

Brokenness lets you see inside, where there may be even more beauty than before. Inside a sea shell, for example, can be details so beautiful like a sculptor created them out of marble. They may be laying broken in the sand, tangled with seaweed and leaves and discarded pieces of human refuse… but they have a beauty unique and unknown until they are picked up and dusted off and admired. We are the same – when we are broken – there is a certain intricate beauty. We don’t usually get through this life whole and intact; we are destined to be broken open, and when we are, we can embrace that inner beauty scarred and yet incredibly holy and sacred.

As you may know, some of the Nicaraguan pottery our mission team brought back was broken in transit. One of the most beautiful pieces was shattered into pieces. Some of the larger pieces are on the communion table today, along with broken things you’ve brought. I love it that people now use broken pottery and dishes to create something lovely all on its own. Pieces of pottery are put together in a mosaic in yards and gardens; pieces of dishes are formed into other kinds of functional décor. We have an old china tea cup set mounted on an old broomstick and placed in the yard as a bird feeder.

The story of Jesus reminds us that the broken things and broken people are not forgotten. In fact, brokenness is an honored part of the faith journey. The prophet Isaiah recorded his purpose to be binding up brokenheartedness.
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners. Isaiah 61:1

In Winfield, there is a relatively new restaurant called Shindigs. Visitors there are treated to unique hand-made industrial decor, which the owner Rob Carroll spent three years crafting from old cars, bolts, chicken feeders, pulleys, aircraft landing strips – anything he could find in the junk yard and turn into something useful…
• There’s the hostess stand crafted from an industrial vessel and valve.
• The wall-mounted beer dispenser made from the front of a 1924 International Truck.
• The upstairs bar made out of the front half of a 1957 Chevy.
• The chandeliers made from pulleys and inverted turkey feeders.
• The outdoor flower garden made out of oversized bolts.
• Even the men’s room urinals are made out of old beer kegs with stall dividers crafted from salvaged truck tailgates.
Old, broken things are the basis for this amazing place.

During Lent, we are invited by the Jesus story to actually embrace our brokenness. We live with broken bodies, broken hearts, broken minds or broken spirits. We suffer from broken relationships. This is the ultimate irony of the passion story. In heartache is hope. In death there is life. In brokenness, we are blessed.

Like Jesus and Judas; like Eucharistic bread, we are taken, blessed, broken and given over and over. If we want to be most fully who we are meant to be, we embrace our brokenness and in it, we find our wholeness.

Resources Used:
Kansas.com “Kansas family turns old railroad station into a chic small-town dining destination” by Denise Neil. Dec. 8, 2017.
Notstrictlyspiritual.com “We are all broken, beautiful, and beloved” by Mary DeTurris Poust. Dec. 18, 2014.
Tmc.com “The Greatest Story Ever Told” by Scott McGee.