Thursday, March 20, 2008

Judas & Me

My friend and I began our preparation for the marathon of the Pascal Triduum by watching Jesus Christ Superstar last night. We both love the 2000 version, with Glenn Carter as Jesus and Jerome Pradon as Judas. You can see numerous cuts from the film at YouTube.

This particular version is very edgy. It is set in an ultramodern Jerusalem, where the Roman guards wear Star Wars-type armor, and the chief priests sit in an underground bunker, watching everything on television cameras. The disciples are portrayed as gang members, and the threat of rebellion is much more intense than it is in the 1973 film version and the versions I've seen on stage.

(As an aside, Glenn Carter is the only blonde Jesus I've ever found convincing. He is amazing in this film, and the smoldering homoeroticism between Carter and Pradon is electrifying. Carter has the most expressive face of just about any actor I've ever seen, and his pain, confusion, and terror are utterly convincing.)

The first time I ever saw JC Superstar was at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta in the late 1980s. I can't swear to it, but I believe that Carl Anderson--who sang the role of Judas in the original film version--may have played Judas in that production as well.

I was completely blown away by the play. And I left with a whole new idea of why Judas had betrayed Jesus--and a new feeling of connection to the greatest villain in history.

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I'm going to confess up front that I'm not sure why I got the idea I'm going to share with you. Now that I know all the lyrics to the show, they don't support what I thought I understood that day. But the lasting impression from that performance has shaped my thinking about my own relationship with Christ, so I'm going to offer it anyway.

What I understood was that Judas thought all this talk of heaven was a distraction from Jesus' real purpose. That, by turning Jesus over to the priests and the Romans, Judas believed he could force Jesus to reveal himself as the Messiah and hasten the coming of the Kingdom--by which he would have meant the overthrow of the Romans and the restoration of a Jewish state.

I believed that Judas wanted (in modern lingo) to help Jesus "reach His full potential"--and thought He needed a bit of a push in that direction. I believed that Judas did what he did for the sake of his nation--not for 30 lousy pieces of silver or at the behest of the Devil--and with the belief that, when push came to shove, Jesus would fight the occupiers and re-establish the reign of God in Jerusalem.

So imagine his pain and anguish when he realized that Jesus was not the Messiah he had believed Jesus to be--and that he, Judas, had sent an innocent man...his closest friend...to His death. When Judas hangs himself in the play, it is the action of a man who is in anguish and who is desperately sorry for what he has done.

As I said, the lyrics themselves do not support my impression--in some way, I probably confused the characters of Judas and Simon Zealotes, who (given his name) would have been the likely one to betray Jesus for such a reason.

But over the years, I have become ever more convinced that it is at least one logical explanation for why Judas might have handed Jesus over to those who wanted to destroy Him. And a cautionary tale for me.

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You see, I find it all too easy to try to force Jesus to be who I want Him to be. To cut and trim Him to fit my own little mold.

In this way, I am no different from the Judas I thought I saw on the stage that day.

Writer Anne Lamott is well-known for her quip "You know you have created God in your own image when He hates all the same people you do." The longer I am on this journey with God, the more I have to remind myself of that quote--and that there is very little difference between Judas and me.

Lent is a time when I am forced to look at myself without the rose-colored glasses that allow me to gloss over my faults for the rest of the year. My laziness. My judgmentalism. The fact that I live in relative luxury, while thousands of children die of starvation every day.

During Lent, I have to look at my failure, each and every day, to live out the faith I proclaim.

Judas did it once--with grave consequences to be sure. But I betray Jesus every day of my life by failing to do what He has commanded me to do--love God and love my neighbor.

This is why I am so grateful that--in the end--Jesus was able to say "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." He knew the worst of what we are capable of doing---and forgave us anyway, without our even asking or repenting.

That is why I am a Christian--because I believe that a God with that much love and that much capacity for forgiveness is the only God worth worshiping.

I believe that Jesus' absolution covered Judas--who was so grieved by his sin that he could not live with the knowledge of it. I also believe it covers me--the one who, two years ago on Maundy Thursday, went to my rector in tears and told her that God Herself had stopped me from ending my own life.

You see, Judas and I both know something of anguish. I believe that God soothed Judas' anguish after death...but He has seen fit to help soothe mine in this life. And for that great gift of love and mercy, I must remind myself that it is *I* who must be molded and changed.

God is God--infinitely loving, merciful, and gracious--and I am not. I am just plain Doxy--sinful and flawed, but full of hope. I know that there are hard days ahead, but Easter is coming... and when it does, Judas and I will both weep for our sins. But then...oh then...we will laugh and dance with joy. Thanks be to God!