Before I continue, let me clarify that I concur with all who claim that the portrayal of Christ is not one that can be taken seriously as an accurate representation of Christ. JCS portrays a very human Christ and neglects any treatment of His Divinity. This could be interpreted as implicit denial of the Divinity of Christ, the beginnings of an excursion into the realms of Arianism. However, strictly speaking, to arrive at such a conclusion is a blatant non sequitur. The only explicit denial of Christ’s Divinity comes from Judas, the traitor, who is portrayed in the musical as a troubled dissident amidst the ranks of the Twelve with a political agenda. As in all art, perspective in Rock Opera is important and any analysis or review that manages to avoid the charge of superficiality will take perspective into account. Christ has two natures – human AND Divine. Quite simply, JCS considers the humanity of Christ; in that it is essentially an artistic work, it does not aim for historical or theological accuracy as to a complete representation of the person of Christ. The only categorical conclusion that holds from the absence of treatment of Christ’s Divinity is that this is outside of the scope of consideration for this piece of art. Thus, to suggest that enjoyment of the show is tantamount to endorsement of Christological heresy (a charge that has been levelled at me in the past) is not a logically tenable position.
What has all of this to do with mercy and relationship, you ask?
An answer to this depends upon the realization that JCS is not a story about Jesus at all. The name of the show is unfortunate and misleading, really… well, not entirely. I guess the name of the show is part of the satirical treatment of the hero-worship that society directs toward the modern-day celebrity. Thats definitely packed in there, and perhaps it was more central to the original intention of Rice and Lloyd Webber than I’m acknowledging. A great deal of social commentary is built into the show, of particular relevance to the original 1971 audience, and of historical relevance to the audiences that have followed up to our own time and beyond. But none of this is the point.
What I am getting at is that the meat and potatoes of the show is contained within the several parallel subplots that each examine the encounter with Christ of a different character. The accurate representation of each character, again, is not what the show is aiming for. Rather, each encounter and the portrayal of its character is a “what-if?” exercise. The character is more a type than a person, one that is portable through time and space. The viewer is invited to enter into each “what-if” story, to really consider the emotions and circumstances of each encounter, and to apply it to his own experience. The show isn’t about who Jesus is. The show is about who I as a viewer am in relation to Jesus.
NOW we’re ready to talk about mercy and relationship.
Enter: Mary Magdalene, stage left.
WHAT IF you had become accustomed to loving and being loved in a certain way? Imagine you attempt to relate with Someone on the basis of that manner of giving and receiving love… and that Someone doesn’t fit? The Someone loves you in a way that is different to any experience of love you’ve had before, and that person asks of you a different way of loving than you had in mind, perhaps a different type of love than you have ever given anyone before?
The Mary Magdalene character in the show is challenged by her encounter with Jesus to discover what love really is, having lived a life that was oppressed by love’s cheap imitation. The cheap imitation of love is what she knows; for all her dislike of it, it’s familiar. Simultaneously she feels worthless, and in control of her surroundings and her own livelihood. She doesn’t like feeling worthless, but is prepared to trade that off as the cost of doing business, as the price for a certain amount of independence. Then the encounter occurs. She struggles with it, internally wrestles with it, this discovery that love is real, and that there is One who can be trusted, One upon whom it is safe to depend. The famous “I don’t know how to love Him” number captures this tension between the desire for control and her confusion at this new relationship, this different type of love to anything she had known before.
Later in the show, “Could We Start Again, Please?” exposes the encounter more deeply; the profound longing for Christ is revealed, but it is revealed in the context of confusion created by expectations about how the encounter should have occured according to Mary’s expectations. The reality of the encounter confounded her expectations and this has given way to so much fear that she asks the question that is the title of the track.
And now for our next act… we can put away the show, for it has done its job by raising the question WHAT IF… and turn to that place where Scripture and personal experience meet.
I discerned a call to religious life, and entered into the novitiate of a beautiful community. One year later, in answer to the question “What do you seek?” I responded “The mercy of God, and yours.” Then the Prioress General addressed me by my new religious name and handed to me my religious habit as I knelt on the sanctuary stairs at her feet. I was clothed in that holy habit and was daily conscious of its significance. For all my weakness and sinfulness, the Lord in a love most profound was extending His mercy along with the invitation to daily choose to make a total gift of self in thanksgiving to Him in a wonderful marriage that rendered my every act an act of worship. (c.f. Canon 607)
On an interior level, I guess I must have hit fast-forward, skipping two years and presuming to approach the Lord as if I had already made vows. Subconsciously, I had expectations of the Lord, as irrational as it is for the finite to expect to comprehend the infinite. I operated on the conclusion that my relationship with Jesus must be spousal. Only months later, I discovered that the Lord was calling me back out to the world, that His purpose for me in the religious community was only for a time, that He was not asking me to make vows. Whoa. All of a sudden… “I don’t know how to love Him”!!
I DO know its not spousally. Now I have to learn to relate some other way.
“This was unexpected, what do I do now? Could we start again, please?”
This is my personal experience. So where does Scripture become helpful?
Well – the confused Mary Magdalene with whom I am finding so much common ground is the pre-Resurection Mary. In chapter 20 of the Gospel of John, we are told of her personal encounter with the Risen Lord. Mary recognises the Risen Lord only after she hears Him speak her name, after He demonstrates that He knows her. What an intimate encounter this must have been!!
Upon her recognition of Him, she addresses the Lord as “Rabbo’ni!” She knows who He is and demonstrates that she knows how He relates to her, what He is to her. He is the Teacher. He is the one to show the way to the Father.
My task next time I sit down to pray? I think I need to place myself in this story, to consider my own deep encounter with the Lord during my time in the novitiate in the light of Mary Magdalene’s experience.