Even as Canada dropped virtually all COVID-related health restrictions in February and March, spread of the more contagious Omicron subvariant BA.2 might suggest the pandemic is far from over.
But the possibility of a sixth wave doesn’t mean Christians can’t find creative ways to celebrate Easter. Churches interested in performing an Easter pageant this year might be interested to learn about the experiences of two Anglican congregations that produced virtual pageants during a previous wave of the pandemic.
In spring 2021, the Rev. Roberta Fraser was interim priest-in-charge at St. Anne’s Steveston in Richmond, B.C., while Sarah Layman was youth leader at St. George’s on Yonge in Toronto. With much of Canada under lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, both women independently came up with similar ideas to involve their congregations in telling the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.
“We went to Zoom worship and when we got towards Christmas, there was no way we could hold a pageant,” Fraser recalls. She put forward the idea of holding a virtual Christmas pageant on Zoom where people could participate from home, which proved a hit with the congregation at St. Anne’s. “When we got towards Lent, I said, ‘Well, let’s try an Easter pageant. The Christmas one went well.”
The St. Anne’s Easter pageant would not be Fraser’s first time organizing a Passion play. In her previous position as a chaplain at the University of British Columbia, she had involved students in a live-action performance on Palm Sunday with costumes and props dramatizing the story of Holy Week.
For Layman, the Easter pageant at St. George’s on Yonge emerged partly from a desire to get to know young people in her congregation.
“I was hired there [as youth leader] during the pandemic, so I never got a chance to meet most of the youth that I was actually working with,” Layman says. “That was a bit of a struggle, to try and get them involved in online activities without having that previous relationship already in place.
“One of the things that I really wanted to try and do, because we were in the middle of intense lockdown during Lent, was to try and put together this online Easter pageant and get the youth involved in something, since we couldn’t do anything at the church.”
The relative lack of resources for Easter pageants meant both Fraser and Layman had to do much of the writing themselves. While the website Illustrated Ministry offered an Easter pageant resource, Fraser discovered after buying it that only half the script—which began with the Sermon on the Mount and in its Holy Week material skipped straight from Gethsemane to the resurrection—would suit her purposes. She therefore discarded much of that script and revised the rest.
Layman, for her part, found a couple of Easter pageant scripts available for purchase, but given her church’s limited budget ultimately decided to write one herself.
Her script closely followed the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection as described in a children’s Bible. “That was my guideline as I was writing, to make sure that the language and the sequence of events was in the right order and that it would be accessible for the children and youth,” she says.
Both virtual Easter pageants took place on Zoom. St. George’s on Yonge performed their pageant by organizing a family coffee hour held after worship and encouraging as many parishioners as possible to join. Each youth was assigned a different character. The pageant took place in two acts, with the first focusing on Jesus’ death and the second on his resurrection.
To involve the whole congregation, the St. George’s pageant was also interactive. Whenever certain words were said, the audience would respond with an action: for example, whenever dialogue mentioned the word “soldiers,” parishioners would say “Yes, sir!” and salute.
“It helped to keep it more interesting I think for the younger kids … because some of them really wanted to be involved, but couldn’t read yet,” Layman says.
“Since we were strictly on Zoom, we were quite limited as to what they could do if they couldn’t read yet. Having the action words gave them a chance to teach the congregation what the actions were and be part of the process.”
Costumes were minimal at the pageants. In the case of St. Anne’s, some parishioners wore headscarves. Fraser sent servers’ robes to performers who were playing angels. In her own role as Thomas, she tucked in her long hair to better resemble a male disciple.
For the sake of convenience, Fraser cast as Pontius Pilate the father of the young parishioner paying Jesus, since they lived in the same household. In a contemporary touch, at Fraser’s suggestion, the actor playing Pilate wore a business suit to evoke someone in power.
The St. Anne’s pageant, recorded and posted on YouTube, was intentionally an all-ages pageant, Fraser said, with performers ranged from five-year-olds to seniors. “My hope was to do this as a whole people of God,” she adds.
Both leaders reported highly positive feedback from their congregations about the Easter pageants. “We got to be creative, we got to have fun … The rest of the congregation watching it, they were really enthused,” Fraser says.
Since Easter 2021, Fraser has moved on from St. Anne’s, which will not be performing an Easter pageant this year. Layman, meanwhile, has taken on a position as the director of children and youth ministry at St. Christopher’s Anglican Church in Burlington, Ont., which will hold an in-person pageant at their upcoming Easter Sunday service.
“I hope that the idea of doing an Easter pageant or a passion play kind of catches on,” Layman says. “It’d be really nice to see more parishes involved in celebrating Easter in that way and giving their young people the opportunity to be part of the story, as opposed to just sitting back and listening to it.”