Jesus Can Sing and Dance, Often at the Same Time

Today is Maundy Thursday.  I did not attend a church, though I will Say that Boulder’s St. John Episcopal Church is having someone sit in their sanctuary at the bare altar from the end of their 7:00 mass to 3:00pm tomorrow when Jesus is crucified (or was crucified, past and present mix during Holy Week).  It sounds a like a pretty neat practice.

Let’s talk musicals.  1971 was a great year for religion and musical theater.  Most famously this was the year Tim Rice’ and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar came to the stage.

Controversial in its time, these days Catholic High Schools put it on as their spring musical.  If it has a “sin,” it’s that it portrays Jesus as more of a human rockstar than a divine savior.  However, if you reach into Catholic history, they’re generally all for a human Jesus.  The Bible is mute on whether or not Jesus was Human or God.  Speaking over-simplistically, Jesus as fully divine AND fully human is a Catholic development.  Moreover the church was historically not shy about Jesus being human.  Next time you’re looking at Renaisssance Art and come across Jesus just after he died look at his loin cloth.

Christ's Erection

Do you see it? What’s holding up the loin cloth?  It’s Jesus’ turgid member of course.  When human men die they get hard as the penis muscles actually relax allowing blood in.  The exact mechanics of it escape me.  Anyways, this was a purposeful portrayal on the part of church artists to capture Jesus as a human. 

Since I’m now in the business of giving challenges on my blog-sermons, I think the challenge of Jesus Christ Superstar during holy week is to revisit the humanity of Christianity’s Son-God-Man.  I remember when I left Mormonism, part of it was that I was appalled by the idea of a Corporeal God. Now it’s just an incredibly fascinating idea. What do we learn about the powers of our own body.  What is the significance of my turgid member, something I share with my culture’s Savior?

This takes me to the next musical of 1971, Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell.  I watched the movie today in lieu of going to St. John’s.  Ultimately less controversial than JCSS, it still recasts the Jesus and the Apostles as damn hippies, but they just sings some fun worship songs and goes through some parables.

I think what I appreciate most about this message is that it reclaims Jesus for whimsy and for the counter culture.  I’m not saying Jesus was a hippy socialist, I’m just saying he wouldn’t wear a miter or a suit, own a private jet, or care about who the gays were marrying (or who anyone was marrying, the world is about to end).  However, he does have a history for freaking out when money is exchanged at a worship-site so…..sorry ‘bout your mega church coffee shop.

The Challenge of Godspell during holy week is to reclaim the whimsy that is our inheritance from our culture’s God.  Holy Week does not mark the beginning of a weighty, conservative establishment that might very well burn you at the stake.  It marks a revolutionary act by a very strange individual.  It was bad for Rome.  It concerns were not the concerns of the authorities.  If your Christianity is used to bully people into falling in with the majority, consider watching Godspell and rethinking your life.

What is the final theatre piece of 1971, you might ask?  Leonard Bernstein’s epic but Clumsy Mass (also written with Stephen Schwartz)I really love this work, but it’s clunky and awkward.  Bernstein set all of the traditional parts of the Mass, but inserted other songs by actor playing the celebrant and the “street chorus” which give commentary on the Mass.  It’s a very neat concept.  The problem was that he was didn’t start writing it until like a month out from its premier at the Opening Gala of the Kennedy Center.  What we end up with is essentially the first draft, and as Hemingway put it “the first draft of anything is shit.”

The central conflict in the show is that the Celebrant is trying to celebrate Mass, but the street chorus keeps interrupting with complaints about god and religion.  1971 was a turbulent time, people weren’t generally thrilled about much. As this goes on the Celebrant eventually loses his cool and throws the host (wafer and wine) to the ground and then dumps all his angst out at once.  Then the day is saved when one of the altar boys starts singing a simply “Laudate,” and slowly the priest and the street chorus join in.  The cast then goes out into the audience singing and then whispering into audience members’ ears “I love you.”  Once again, 1971 delivers brilliant hippy non-sense.

For me, the most striking line in the work happens in the song “non-credo.”  One of the street chorus members goes on and on about how God is just the worst, and how he’d rather be a barnacle than a man.  The song ends with him chanting “I don’t want to say Credo! How could anyone say Credo?” and then, with voice breaking he sings “I want to say Credo.”

I think this line really captures the tension I’ve been bringing out in my Holy Week series.  Here our singer exhibits that desire to practice his religion absent of any belief in God.  Perhaps it’s even that tension between wanting to believe but being unable.  In some ways, I think the musical ends still in that tension.  They end with the simple praise word of “Laudate,” but no creed is ever re-affirmed.  Moreover, Bernstein and Schwartz are both Jewish, so whatever relationship to belief they’re putting into this work, it can’t be a straightforward belief in the Christian God.

So this Holy Week lesson?  Make space in your life for holy time and holy practice.  If the Christian Holy Week isn’t your thing, find something else.  I don’t know how anyone can say credo, can sit Zazen, take on vows of celibacy, but sometimes I need to do it anyways.  Maybe you do to?

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Vis Vobiscum in Aeternam

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