The old, old story
This is supposed to be the year of the Living Nativity. The year we walk down to Centennial Park through the freshly fallen snow and watch the good men and women of Uxbridge Baptist Church remind us what this season really used to be all about…. Christ-mas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Every second year, I would sit in the bleachers, usually with my good Christian wife, sometimes with a grandson who was not very familiar with the story, and I would watch the faces of the crowd as much as I watched the actors. The kids would always eagerly await the appearance of the live sheep and donkey, and hope like me that maybe this year the three wise men would lead on a real camel.
Of the hundreds in the crowd, I would wonder how many were there because they were true believers in the full 30-year arc of Jesus’ life, including the cross at the end and what it meant. Or were they just there for the pageantry, and the comforting words from St. Luke telling the story about a young couple forced to bring forth their first-born in a stable, “no crib for a bed.”
For me, Christmas has always been about the music. I don’t remember how it was that I ended up as a six-year-old soprano soloist in the junior choir at Knox United in Edmonton, because my parents weren’t exactly devoted church-goers. But every Sunday morning for the next couple of decades, I was usually the only Boyce who dressed up and went to “meeting.” And although there were hymns and anthems I enjoyed the rest of the year, I was really only marking time till the first chance we got to sing Midnight Clear or We Three Kings. Even now, my favourite Christmas CDs aren’t the holiday albums that carry on about snowmen and jingle bells, but the ones that re-tell the nativity story. My all-time favourite, which I heartily recommend if you don’t know it, is Kathy Mattea’s Good News.
When I left Edmonton, though I seldom went to church any more, I sang in community choirs a lot, and so got to re-visit the old story frequently. But in a strange turn of events, it was a choir that never sang church music that got me involved in the most intense spiritual experience of my life.
While at university, I also made my first foray into opera, singing in the chorus of a couple of Verdis and an Offenbach. So it was that after a rehearsal of Un Ballo in Maschera one fall evening in 1971, the director asked any of us to stay behind who might be interested in being part of a back-up chorus for… a rock opera!
That term – “rock opera” – was brand new back then, which is perhaps why Andy Krawchuk, the leader of the Edmonton band The Privilege, thought he should recruit singers from an actual opera chorus. But ultimately I was the only one that took him up on it. Within a couple of weeks, I was in rehearsal for the very first touring company in North America of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Exactly 50 years ago tonight, we were playing an auditorium in Kamloops, as I recall. And by Christmas, were in the midst of a run at the Pantages in Philadelphia. During the six months I toured with Superstar (playing Caiaphas the priest and singing in the chorus), I learned to play bridge (our usual post-performance recreation). And I also learned a whole lot about where I stood as a Christian, more than I did after hundreds of Sunday morning sermons. As you’re probably aware, Webber’s creation took a pretty radical view of Jesus at the time, a view which was even more widely broadcast when Canadian director Norman Jewison did the movie version a couple of years later.
In essence, Superstar contends that Jesus was an itinerant philosopher and riveting storyteller who ultimately found himself way out of his depth, surrounded by disciples who saw him as much a political leader as a spiritual one (Simon wasn’t called a Zealot for nothing). In Webber’s telling, Judas is more a hero than a villain, who tries to warn his friend from being blinded by the spotlight, but is ultimately, like Jesus, caught up in God’s “infernal plan,” which requires that the Nazareth carpenter be sacrificed in order to found a new religion that will sweep the world.
As a student of the Bible, I’d long been uncomfortable with the whole “saviour” concept. I wasn’t sure it was necessary in order to follow Jesus’ teachings, particularly at the expense of so many other millions of lives sacrificed over the centuries in the name of Christianity. And all of a sudden Webber had given me a new way of looking at things, although ultimately I came to admire the gentle teacher of Godspell more than the strident victim of Superstar.
However you look at the end of Jesus’ life, you can still admire the beauty of the story of how it all began. In song, or in Uxbridge’s cherished Living Nativity. Merry Christ-mas!