We all "know" Jesus wasn't fat, but in the 7th grade, I was on the chocolate cake and Fishstick Friday side of pudgy. I'd never eaten very healthily, but a series of well-time growth spurts kept me rather svelte. Unfortunately, by 12 years old and already about 5'11", I'd pretty much stopped growing (maybe two more inches into the first half of high school), and my "baby" fat really started to settle in.
My school at the time, the now defunct St. Peter's Catholic School near Stockton and Fruitridge, held a Stations of the Cross play every Christmas season. For you non-Catholics out there, the Stations of the Cross is a series of fifteen events from Jesus being condemned to death to Jesus' resurrection. It's normally depicted in some kind of artistic form, and if you ever entered a Catholic Church and wondered what those carvings/paintings on the walls were and why they were marked with the Roman Numerals I to XV, well now you know.
The "play" wasn't so much a play as much it was a bunch of 8th graders standing still on the dusty stage of the school's auditorium for a few minutes per Station, illustrating, in human form, what those artistic representations might've looked like if a group of multiethnic middle schoolers from South Sac had actually participated in said events. Let me make this clear - the Stations of the Cross play was for 8th graders only. Yet somehow, none of the 8th grade boys wanted to take on the iconic role of Jesus. Maybe they didn't feel they could live up to it. Maybe they didn't want to carry the cross (yes, there was an actual cross, but more on that later). I don't know. What I do know is that Sister Esther, the kindhearted nun in charge of the play, had asked me to stay after class, where she tried to guilt me into taking on the role of Jesus.
I said no at first. Playing Jesus? Are you kidding me? Talk about pressure. But after more guilting from her, the Sister Principal, some other teachers, some talking-me-into-it guilt trips (ahem, discussions) from my mother, and thinking maybe this would absolve me of some of the sins I'd already accumulated (like stealing chocolate milk from the cafeteria fridge), I said yes.
Rehearsals started immediately, a week before showtime, and I really didn't mind initially because there was an 8th grade girl I'd had a gigantic crush on. We'll call her Julia and she had two roles - Mary Magdalene and Veronica (the woman who wipes Jesus' face in the sixth Station). Julia was different. She was bold enough to rock the pixie haircut while the other girls were still Aquanetting their bangs to high heaven. She was bold enough to eschew cheerleading and instead played softball, volleyball, and basketball and rolled up those ugly, uniform plaid skirts just enough to seem rebellious. During rehearsals, she kept smiling at me and giving me the eye. I'd find her and her gal pals, two girls of the giggling genus, on the stairs below the stage, looking at me and giggling while Julia's face turned red. It was the stuff of innocent YA novels. It was the beginning of something special.
You see, Jesus has to take his shirt off. It hadn't occurred to me that maybe that's why the 8th grade boys didn't want to do it. As a group, they were not the in-shapest bunch I'd ever seen. Robed for the first nine Stations, the tenth is generally entitled, in one way or another, "Jesus is Stripped of His Clothes." So that's what happens in the play. From Stations Ten to Fourteen, I learned in rehearsals, I'd be standing on the stage for about 20 minutes, being faux-nailed to a cross, dressed in nothing but the faux crown of thorns (which somehow did manage to cut my forehead) and a shaggy, brown cloth that wrapped the basketball shorts Jesus certainly wasn't wearing.
The thing is, until The Moment, I didn't even know I was fat and that's probably because I really wasn't. Again, I'd classify it as barely on the wrong side of pudgy. (Oh, right, the cross. There was a cross, a real one, made of wood, about 30-40 pounds, that I had to carry on my shoulder for most of the play. For the Crucifixion scenes (Stations 11-13, for those keeping track at home), Sister Esther ingeniously came up with a plan that would make it look like I was actually nailed to a cross. She took a heavy wooden box that stood about three feet high, cut a slit in the top of it the exact size and shape of the base of the cross, slid the cross into it, and told me to stand on the box with my arms outstretched along the arms of the cross.) When (un)dress rehearsal came, one day before Opening Night, I took off my shirt without much thought. I climbed up on the box, outstretched my arms like I was told, and immediately heard Julia and the gals giggling again by the stairs. Even Julia was giggling this time. I overheard one of them say, "Jesus wasn't that fat." He wasn't Filipino or thirteen years old either, but sometimes you need to suspend disbelief.
The actual day of the play was worse. I was playing Jesus, see, and I had to look bloody at the right moments. Sister Esther had decided to stage the play as glow in the dark, meaning most of our costumes were white and there were big black lights facing the "actors" from the front of the stage. This also meant I would be wearing strategically placed bandaids that had been colored with highlighter ink to produce the appearance of blood. Two of these bandaids were placed on my upper abdomen, one on the left and one on the right, so that in the dimness of the auditorium, and the black light shining on me, the location of those two bandaids looked like nipples for extremely sagging breasts.
By the time the resurrection scene came, and I stood on the box where the cross had been in, swathed in brilliant white clothes, my right hand raised high over my fellow actors and even higher over the audience, who would soon be clapping and cheering after finishing their prayers (people praying while you're portraying Jesus - another weird experience I'll have to write about later), all I could think about was Julia's giggling. She stood in front of me either as Mary Magdalene or Veronica, I'm not sure, her head hooded but face turned up to me. Whether she was looking at me or not, I don't know, because I made sure to keep my eyes on the Exit sign across the auditorium, shining green like some kind of emerald pathway to salvation. Whoa, whoa, whoa. That was too serious. Let's try that again…. shining green like some kind of emerald pathway to the parking lot outside, because even though they were serving punch and cookies and the refrigerator in the kitchen was filled with chocolate milk, I really just wanted to go home.
Julia couldn't look at me after that without giggling. She graduated a few months later and I never saw her again. I've spent years in shape, feeling good about myself, and I've spent years doing just the opposite. But there's one thing that has remained a constant - I had an opportunity few in this world will ever have. I got to play Jesus, even if my bandaid nipples were hanging a little bit low.