On Easter Sunday, along with millions of Christians worldwide, I celebrated the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
With all the buzzing fangirl energy a woman of a certain age can summon, I settled in with great anticipation to watch the NBC live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar. And returned willingly to the events we’d just commemorated in Holy Week — Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem to crowd adulation, the driving of the moneychangers from the temple, the apostles’ continued incomprehension of Jesus’ mission, the Last Supper, the betray by Judas, the Garden of Gethesemane, Jesus’ arrest and trials, Judas’ suicide, and the crucifixion.
I was a relatively unchurched preteen when I decided to listen to the original concept album for Jesus Christ Superstar, left behind by one of my grown siblings when they moved out. It had a matte brown cover with the JCS logo imprinted in gold, and an accompanying libretto, similarly simple and elegant.
A note before proceeding: I have no Jesus Christ Superstar before the original concept album Jesus Christ Superstar, no JCS Jesus but Ian Gillan Jesus, no JCS Judas but Murray Head — neither the 1973 movie soundtrack nor later stage productions dilute my loyalty. It is my King James Bible of musicals, captured in perfection on vinyl, but with a metaphorical worn leather cover and multiple ribbons marking the key melodic and lyrical verses that bring me life.
I’d met Jesus before, of course — the felt-board Jesus in a few Vacation Bible School sessions, the Jesus with tidy, collar-length light-brown hair and kind eyes that adorned the avocado-green box of the children’s Living Bible my mother gave me when I was 7 or 8, I suspect because she felt guilty that she was going through an extended period when she couldn’t endure church. I also had an odd habit of getting up on Sunday mornings, while my parents slept, and tuning in to Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power. Jesus was there, in my memory, mainly as relentless Southern California light pouring through the Crystal Cathedral, and the invisible founding savior of a power of positive thinking franchise.
But from the first languid electric guitar licks of the overture, the burst of frenetic orchestra, JCS was something different. Though I had no visuals, sitting beside our console stereo I knew this Jesus’ hair was not tidy and that he was espousing something much more complicated than positive thinking.
Jesus Christ Superstar was — with addictive musical hooks, thrilling rock wails, over-the-top dramatic tension, heroes, villians, and the in-between — imperfectly, unforgettably, my first real introduction to the gospel. Yes, the lyrics by Tim Rice did portray a more human-than-God Jesus than is orthodox, not as confidant and all-knowing. But rock opera Jesus was every bit as passionate, mercurial, suffering, and on the cross, forsaken.
And what rock opera Jesus says, for the most part, sticks to the scriptural script. He is shown confronting both friends and enemies with what they can’t seem to understand: That the ways of God are not the ways of the world. That God’s reign is not won in battle or maintained by might. That sacrifice is not a magic spell that makes things right, but an ever-present possibility when God’s word comes up against the principalities and powers.
Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t the gospel, exactly. But it was my bridge to the real thing.
So that Sunday night, I was both anticipating every note with a fan’s fervor and returning, again, to something that is for me a religious experience. For the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. Some singing could have been stronger; the new (or new to me) second verse added to “Hosanna” sounded like self-help guru platitudes (guys, you’re not going to out-do “the rocks and stones themselves will start to sing,” just don’t try); friends I was conversing with online noted other favorite couplets dropped here or there. And this production seemed to imply that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple because of sexy slow-dancing. But on the whole, even with flaws, the broadcast was everything my 10-year-old self could have hoped for, and more.
At the end was a stunning sequence with John Legend as Jesus being hoisted up on a cross as the stage walls behind him opened and he seemed to recede out of view in blinding light. While in my mind Jesus Christ Superstar always ends with what, in that era of Roman occupation, was the horribly mundane sight of dying and dead, executed bodies on crosses, I could live with the more hopeful flourish.
But then I realized people were talking about how NBC’s portrayal of the resurrection differed from others they’d seen in Jesus Christ Superstar. My obsessive inner nerd rose to attention.
You couldn’t have seen resurrection in Jesus Christ Superstar because there was no resurrection in Jesus Christ Superstar. "That was the point!," I online shouted. That’s why some considered it scandalous — a very human Jesus, a Judas who makes a lot of sense if you listen to him, and no Jesus rising from the dead. It doesn’t deny the resurrection. It just stops beforehand.
According to my original concept album reading, all that you have at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar are dead bodies and questions. Before there’s resurrection, there’s confusion, disillusionment, crushing grief, doubt, and more doubt. More grief.
I startled myself with how aggressively I wanted to defend this point. This being left dangling in Good Friday, and the Saturday after, was part of how my faith was formed. It mattered.
I came in time to believe in the biblical resurrection, not because it came whisking in on high-tech stage rigging before we felt any pain, but because Jesus arises amid the pain and loss, wounds intact, answering few if any questions, and leaving no comfort that makes worldly sense when he leaves again.
The Roman occupation did not evaporate when Jesus rolled that stone away.
The danger to Jesus’ followers did not end when he appeared to them — really, it had only just begun.
The squabbles they had among themselves were not finished, would not be finished, would be writ large, with centuries of councils and ex-communications and murders and armies and endless online arguments about points of doctrine small and large.
Resurrection comes, and comes again liturgically, but not with erasure of pain or broken bodies and broken hearts or the questions. Oh no, it comes with all the questions and brings a full measure more.
Did Jesus know he was God? Why was he incarnated in Judea before mass communication could have spread the word? Is he the one true way? So, Jesus, is Buddha where it’s at, is he where you are?
When remembering, as we did on Wednesday with the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, others who were slaughtered for proclaiming the gospel, for stripping away the illusions, the violence, and the commerce that sustains the people-crushing status quo of the world, I can’t help but ask: Why does crucifixion keep happening?
I still believe. But that doesn’t preclude singing along, with Judas in his glitter suit and his backup singers, “Tell me, tell me, don’t get me wrong, I only wanna know.”