Art: “Image from Jesus Christ Superstar,” Otterbein College Production, 2005; Photographer: Karl Kuntz, Otterbein University Theatre & Dance from USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jesus_Christ_Super_Star_(15602532584).jpg
Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket Church
Every year, during Lent, I listen to “Jesus Christ Superstar” on a continual loop.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a musical adaptation of the biblical story of the week leading up to the death of Jesus. And, like the Gospels, while it covers that full week, the musical really zooms in on the final hours – on the last few days leading up to the crucifixion.
I was first introduced to “Jesus Christ Superstar” when I was in my mid-20’s and saw it performed by a touring company at a local theater. I’ve seen it a few times since then – from live performances at the Kennedy Center to the NBC “live” performance, with John Legend as Jesus (he was great).
The show isn’t perfect. Sometimes, it can be just plain weird. The campy 70s movie version is, honestly, just too much for me – it’s a little too odd, and I just can’t get into it. I saw a great performance at the Kennedy Center in 2022, but during the scene when Jesus was being whipped, they represented the whipping by having the cast throw red glitter at him (it was kinda interesting but also mostly just really bizarre). And, if I’m honest, certain key plot elements in the play depend more upon the author’s creative license than on the story as it’s actually told in the Bible.
But, even with those flaws, the reason I return to “Jesus Christ Superstar” every year is because it helps me experience the story of Holy Week at an emotional level. For me, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of experiencing the story of Jesus primarily in my head, and not letting the story reach my heart. I tend to be someone who wants to process ideas and figure out how they fit together. I’m open to emotional experience (or at least I want to be and I try to be), but sometimes deep emotional experience doesn’t come easily or naturally to me.
But the story of Jesus is something that should – or that I want to – touch me both at the level of my head AND at the level of my heart. God has reached out and come near to us, and not only is it important to understand what that means, it’s also something that I want to impact me on an emotional register. The One who hung the stars in the sky also hung on a cross for me. The One who is Life itself died in order to set me free. The One who is always faithful to us was betrayed by his closest friends. The One who will never abandon us was abandoned for our sake. When God showed up in our world, we human beings responded by putting God-in-the-flesh to death. This is a story of a God who does not remain distant, but who enters into our world in order to save us. This is the story of a God who walks through the darkest night in order to bring us through to the glorious light of resurrection. This is a story that should move us. It should challenge us. It should break open our hearts and make us feel something.
But none of that comes naturally to me. Those feelings don’t come easily to me. And, so, throughout the season of Lent, I listen to this story over and over again, and I find myself moved – by songs of betrayal and heartbreak and regret and death. And, as I open myself to experiencing the story of Christ’s suffering and death at an emotional level, I find that I better understand the words of Philippians 2:
“Though [Jesus Christ] was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
When God-in-the-flesh walked among us, we responded by putting God to death. And, yet, instead of punishing us for this, somehow all of this has become the story of our salvation. It is a heart-rending mystery. And it is Good News.
Find previous “Picturing God” entries here:
Art: “Resurrection Icon” Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Resurrection_(24).jpg Written by Brian Johnson, Pastor of Haymarket…
Art: “Crucifixion of Jesus” drawn by Gustave Doré, engraved by J. Gauchard Brunier. Scanned by Michael Gäbler with Epson Perfection 4490 Photo., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available…
Art: “Madonna and Child with St. Anne” by Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available online…
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Art: “The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons Available online at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Taking_of_Christ-Caravaggio_(c.1602).jpg …