HEARTLAND | Nate Adams
As Easter approaches each year, I frequently find myself returning to the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Perhaps it’s because I was a teenager in the 1970’s, when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s groundbreaking rock opera was immensely popular. They say the music of our teen years can shape us for the rest of our lives, and certainly hearing these songs again brings back many memories and emotions.
But really more than the music, it has been Tim Rice’s lyrics that have stuck with me. To this day I can recite most of the words Rice penned over 40 years ago, including the powerful dialogue where Pilate angrily demands of Jesus, “Why do you not speak when I have your life in my hands? Why do you stay quiet? I don’t believe you understand!”
Jesus’ reply in the rock opera, though imaginary, is consistent with the Bible’s message. “You have nothing in your hands,” Jesus meekly replies. “Any power you have comes to you from far beyond. Everything is fixed, and you can’t change it.”
Those simple words powerfully convey the confidence and courage of Jesus as he went to the cross for us, and also the providence and sovereignty of God in securing our salvation. Each time I hear them, they make me want to cheer for God and His great victory on our behalf.
To their credit, Webber and Rice took moments like that from the passion week of Christ and, with some admitted license and imagination, placed them in the contemporary music and language of their day. The result was memorable, and therefore enduring.
And yet, as critics and Christians alike noted even during the height of its popularity, Jesus Christ Superstar has one obvious and major shortcoming. It concludes with the crucifixion.
Apologists for the rock opera observed that the ending was deliberately left to the faith or skepticism of the observer. Even Christians noted with appreciation that it at least served to place the name of Jesus on peoples’ lips, and the story of his life in their minds and hearts, in many cases for the first time.
But there was no resurrection. No Easter. No delivering the good news that death was not the end for Jesus and that it need not be the end for those who believe in him.
Yes, ultimately Jesus Christ Superstar sadly reminds us that it’s possible to stop the story too soon. It’s possible to focus so much on the various overtures to Easter that we don’t truly celebrate the finale.
It happens all around us. Immediately after Valentine’s Day, the candy and toy aisles at every store in town switch their ruby red treats and treasures over to the pastel, Easter versions. Clothing catalogs tell us that we need something new to wear. And florists and garden centers remind us that a properly decorated Easter requires lilies. All these traditions paint the days before Easter with an elaborate pageantry. Then the big day comes, and we are left to wonder whether all the preparation overshadowed Easter itself.
We can even do it in our churches. For weeks we can invest in preparing musicals, programs, decorations, and children’s activities designed to help us celebrate Easter. All these things are good. But they are not the finale. They are not the really big part of the story that must be celebrated and that must be told.
The title song from Jesus Christ Superstar is sung by, of all people, Judas, near the end of the rock opera. In it he asks Jesus, “Who are you? What have you sacrificed?” In our churches and in our conversations with others, we need to make sure to get to the part of the story that answers those questions with truth and faith and confidence. As important as what happened before Easter is, it’s what happens after Easter that makes all the difference.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association.