By Simone Delochan
Every Lent for the past four years, I do this strange thing: I return to the 1973 film Jesus Christ, Superstar.
The self-aware rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which has enjoyed success around the world for over 40 years, examines the key relationships in Jesus’ life leading up to the crucifixion, and poignant for me are His relationships with Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene.
My affinity to this version is rooted in my first exposure while quite young through my eldest sister and brother-in-law. The range of accessible and credible emotions never fails to move me each time I revisit it, and the performances by Ted Neeley (Jesus), Carl Anderson (Judas Iscariot) and Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) are incomparable.
Usually what happens is there is a song on the soundtrack which begins to resonate for some reason at the time and leads to deeper scriptural and doctrinal reading and reflection. I rest with that person for the duration of Lent, opening myself up to the learnings embedded therein.
One year, I felt great connection to Mary Magdalene and the song ‘I don’t know how to love him’, which made me examine my relationship with Christ, and what loving Him means for a very self-sufficient and stubborn me. What is unconditional love?
“What’s it all about?
Yet, if he said he loved me
I’d be lost. I’d be frightened
I couldn’t cope, just couldn’t cope
I’d turn my head. I’d back away
I wouldn’t want to know
He scares me so…”
It is a deeply emotional song that delves into layers of vulnerability, self-examination but ultimately, as the film continues, there is reconciliation of what love for Him means. It is, however, a journey that is both conflicted and fulfilling in the small acts of kindness she performs for Him.
The Mary Magdalene character takes the lead as well in another song which follows Christ’s arrest, ‘Could we start again please’ which brings me to tears every time I listen to it.
It is replete with the apostles’ yearning for Him and their bewilderment at the spiral of circumstances surrounding them at the sudden disappearance of Christ from their lives. “Hurry up and tell me this is just a dream, Or could we start again, please?…. Before it gets too frightening, we ought to call a halt. So, could we start again, please?”
Can you imagine knowing and being with the physical person of Christ, then having Him wrenched from you in a cruel and abrupt manner, after three years of seeing Him perform miracles and preach love? His absence could only have been devastating, and in particular witnessing His demise on the cross, this man you loved.
Holy Week takes on new dimensions, not only in Christ’s Passion but walking in the footsteps of the apostles, these men who were called by Him to accompany Him. Imagine their elation with His Resurrection as they re-encounter whom they thought lost forever to them.
This year, ‘Gethsemane’ is the one that has occupied my mind. Ted Neeley in that song gives free rein to both his voice and emotion. The Christ-character describes himself as “sad and tired”; becomes bitter and hopeless; questions; argues; becomes enraged; feels manipulated then accepts God’s will.
“But if I die
See the saga through and do the things you ask of me,
Let them hate me, hit me, hurt me, nail me to their tree
I’d want to know, I’d want to know, my God…
Why I should die…
God, thy will is hard
But you hold every card
I will drink your cup of poison
Nail me to your cross and break me
Bleed me, beat me
Take me, now!
Before I change my mind”
What does it mean that God became man? Did Christ passively follow the path laid out for Him? How would the knowledge and weight of what was to happen to Him burden Him? Can we then in understanding His personhood as well, feel the depth of His sacrifice, the profundity of God’s love for humanity? Does the fact that God “gave His only begotten son” make us both grateful and move us to deeper communion?
The film ostensibly ends with the cast of the musical leaving the site of the ‘play’, the main actors glancing sadly at the crosses in the distance. But something accidental happens during the filming of the scene: a silhouette crosses the frame, in front of the cross and the setting sun. A farmer had appeared out of nowhere at that point.
From the distance, the figure is ethereal and unwittingly ends the film not with the death on the cross in a barren landscape as the final word, but with a poetic gesture to Christ’s Resurrection.