Passion and Pop Songs

by Bret Mavrich

Last night, a massive glowing cross was carried in procession through the streets of New Orleans. The procession was in honor of Palm Sunday, and was a piece of a major live production of the Passion hosted by Christian celebrity Tyler Perry. The cross was so large that it took about 20 people to carry it, and a reporter (part of the live program) accompanied the procession, periodically interviewing bystanders and participants.

As the cross made it’s way from the Super Dome to Woldenberg Park, Tyler Perry narrated scenes from Jesus’ last hours. Each scene— the last supper, the garden of gethsemane, the trial before Pilate—included a musical number, a modern day pop-song performed by everyone from Jesus and Mary to Judas and Pilate.

Now let me stop here a minute because I have to be honest about something: major networks have produced a rash of live theater productions recently, and I’ve been eating them up. I think I’ve seen every single one: The Wiz, Grease Live, and now this. But when I realized that Tyler Perry’s The Passion intended to take the most sacred scenes in Christianity and pair them with pop songs, I was skeptical.

But I was wrong to be skeptical. Not only were the songs powerful, but they were actually illuminating. And for no other scene was this more true than the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Demons in the Garden

The entire live production of The Passion took place in New Orleans among the many iconic streets and beneath eerie Spanish moss. But the scene in the Garden took place in a small, nondescript park between two bridges. The disciples are asleep on cardboard—perhaps to imitate a homeless camp— when squad cars roll up and Judas jumps out.

Without hesitation, Judas strides up to Jesus and greets him with a kiss, a kiss that betrays him to the captors, and which signals the start of a duet.

Here are some lyrics from the song. If you didn’t see the production last night, imagine Judas singing them to Jesus just after betraying him with a kiss:

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide

It’s where my demons hide
They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul

I need to let you go
Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

And Jesus, pleading with Judas that he would return, sings back his part of the duet: “This is my Kingdom come. This is my Kingdom Come.”

Here I must repeat myself: this was not a song written for a Passion play. It’s a pop song that you’d hear on the radio, and not a single lyric was changed to appropriate it for this scene.

Positioned as a conversation between Jesus and the Betrayer, a song that would ordinarily make me change the station, helped me see the heart of Jesus in a fresh light.

Keep Your Distance, Demons

Jesus lost a friend in the Garden, and he did nothing to deserve it. Someone who Jesus had embraced and let into his dearest secrets, at the end gave in to his own brokenness and severed connection. Most everybody can relate to what Jesus experienced, but very few people can relate to how he responded.

Betrayal is something everyone will experience sooner or later. Allowing others to have access to our lives—whether a spouse, friend, brother, or mentor—is an extremely vulnerable space. It takes trust. It takes care. And it’s a delicate space that can be shattered by simple miscommunication, let alone a full blown knife-to-the-back.

And once we experience betrayal, many times it’s the other people around us who pay the price for it. We develop systems of protection. We analyze and scan interactions with others, even those who have shown us nothing but true friendship, for any sign of weakness or disfunction. We scan the past looking for the signs we missed that would have given us a clue, and then remap what we’ve “learned” onto other relationships. We’re watching out for demons. We tell ourselves we’re being wise when really we’re yielding to the dark powers of fear, anxiety, cynicism, doubt, suspicion.

We imagine we’re keeping other people’s demons out, while what we’re actually doing is breeding our own.

The Kingdom Comes

What’s wild about Jesus is that he knew his betrayal was coming, and yet he stayed open and vulnerable to Judas. Not only were there prophetic scriptures that predicted Judas’ betrayal, but John’s Gospel explains that Jesus knew all things that were in men because he was the Son of God!

Jesus knew Judas would betray him, and yet he stayed open and vulnerable to him for years. He poured into him as a person. He told Judas secrets. He trusted him with important tasks related to the ministry. In other words, Jesus “kept his love on.”

Imagine what we would do if we had known who was going to hurt us before it happened. If we had that kind of insight, we’d have no friends. Every relationship experiences missteps, hardships, and betrayals. But it’s the power of Christ’s resurrection that gives us any hope of maintaining them.

Danny Silk touches on this in his book Keep Your Love On. He explains that every relationship has either the goal of connection or disconnection. That means that if two people are not trying to stay connected, then they are actively seeking distance.

Sin separates and divides. But it is because of the life of Christ in us that we can find the power to respond as he did, to fight for connection.

While I was watching the garden scene in The Passion, I was undone by strength of Jesus’ love.  While Judas sings about his personal demons, Jesus, instead of recoiling in fear, moves towards him in a demonstration of love.

In the minutes immediately following the kiss, he’s still open. He’s contending for relationship in the middle of the storm of his own injury. And he’ll continue to stay open to his dying breath.

This is what Christ’s Kingdom looks like.


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