Such a backward time

Three decades have past since the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” debuted with acclaim on Broadway. Some of the words and music of that controversial production still linger in my consciousness, but none has intrigued me more than the lament Judas sang to Jesus in the title song.

Do you remember his probing words?

When I look at you I just can’t understand,

Why you chose such a backward time and such a strange land.

If you came today you could have reached a whole nation;

Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication….

A backward time, indeed. In 4 B.C., the vast majority of people couldn’t even read; news spread only as fast and as far as a messenger could run in a day. If God wanted the world to know about Jesus, why didn’t God send him into a more sophisticated time-like ours, with satellite transmission, CNN and the Internet?

Now, there’s a thought. Imagine the birth of Christ had occurred in our enlightened age. Consider what might have happened if this historic event had had the advantage of mass communication.

No doubt, news of the birth of a new king in the Middle East would have been broadcast widely on the evening news:

– Dan Rather, reporting live (of course) from Jerusalem, would assure us that rumors of a baby king are being pooh-poohed by “knowledgeable sources within the Sanhedrin.” (“And that’s part of our world tonight.”)

-Tom Brokaw would announce that the latest NBC poll indicates that only 19 percent of respondents believe an infant could successfully dethrone Herod if a palace coup were launched today.

– ABC’s Barbara Walters would likely win the ratings war with her exclusive one-on-one interview with Herod himself. Her first question: “If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?” (His response: “Royal-tree.”)

– Of course, CNN would provide nonstop coverage of the breaking news. From inside Herod’s palace, ace correspondent Wolfe Blitzer would report the latest development: According to Herod’s press secretary-and contrary to rumors-the King actually encourages leadership development in his kingdom. In fact, says the source, the King will soon launch a Head Start program for every first-born male.

Sheesh. Does the mainstream media ever get the real story? Fortunately, we’d also have the “alternative media.”

– Carl Sagan would host a PBS special, telling us there are “billions and billions” of reasons why a star could not settle over a specific Middle Eastern village. His alternative explanation: swamp gas.

– Rush Limbaugh would spend his energy carping about the tax-and-spend policies of Caesar Augustus-or in his words, “Caesar Disgust-Us.” And who’s to blame for that stupid decree to tax the whole known world? Rush knows: The liberals in Rome.

– Let’s not forget the always well-reasoned, understated reporting of the National Inquirer. I can see their eight-inch headline now: “VIRGIN IMPREGNATED BY SPIRIT, GIVES BIRTH TO ALIEN ROYALTY!”

Wait. This time they got it right. But who would believe it?

The impact of all this media attention is pretty predictable in our enlightened world.

– Ricki Lake or Maury Povich would try to recruit Joseph for a talk-show segment on the theme, “Men who stick with their pregnant fiancee even though the baby isn’t his.”

Frankly, I don’t think Joseph would go for it. But not everybody would be so discreet.

– Those wild and crazy shepherds would sign a deal to star in a new adventure movie for kids, called, “Mighty Morphin Manger Rangers.” The flick would feature a fearless force of flock defenders who fight evil with the help of a Heavenly Host-a part played, perhaps, by the divine Tom Cruise.

– By the way, someone would capture the real heavenly host on home video that fateful night and parlay their song, “Glory to God in the Highest,” into a hit music video on M-TV. A host of agents would try frantically to organize a concert tour, but might have trouble tracking down that rockin’ choir.

– The wise men, meanwhile, would be a ratings hit as guest panelists on “Jeopardy.” Melchior would win after betting the bank on the “Final Jeopardy” question. Angered by the success of such an illogical strategy, the other two sages would probably take separate routes back to Persia.

– No doubt one of the wise men, maybe Balthazar, would become a pop icon by starring in a TV commercial. Says the Wise King B: “Because you never know when you’ll need to buy an expensive gift…. American Express: Don’t leave home without it.”

Of course, the glare of media exposure creates its share of losers, too. Pity the poor innkeeper from Bethlehem-the unnamed bad guy in Luke’s Gospel. You can bet an innkeeper in our enlightened day would have realized the unfortunate decision of turning away Mary and Joseph.

Can you feel his pain?

“Now, honey,” says Bertha, his wife, “you’ve been moping around for three months now. When are you going to get over this?”

“I can’t help it,” he sobs. “I had my chance. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Jesus, the son of God, could have been born in my lowly inn. And I blew it!”

His wife hands him another Prozac. “Come now, dear. The inn was full that night, remember? There was nothing you could have done.”

“Sure there was,” he wails. “I… I… I could have thrown out that obnoxious family in Room 2C, or maybe cleared out the hardware convention on the third floor. But no-o-o-o-o-o! I turned away Mary and Joseph!”

“Now listen to me,” his wife says softly but firmly. “You couldn’t have known who Mary and Joseph were. Who knew she was going to give birth to the Son of God? God won’t blame you for missing the spiritual significance of that night.”

The innkeeper pauses.

“Spiritual significance? What on earth are you talking about, Bertha?”

“Why, isn’t that why you’ve been depressed for so long? Isn’t it because you missed out on God’s glorious gift of sending his Son into the world?”

“Uh…no. I was thinking of the real opportunity we missed.”

“What do you mean?”

“Think about it, dear. Our inn would have been the birthplace of the Son of God. What a gold mine! I can see it now…a giant marquee outside the inn…neon lights flashing: JESUS BORN INSIDE… or, MARY AND JOSEPH SLEPT HERE. Why, we’d pack out the place every night! Not to mention the souvenir shop in the lobby.”

“Dear, I don’t think-“

“You don’t think big, Bertha. Why, we could declare his birthday a national holiday. Maybe decorate some trees, string some lights, throw parties, exchange gifts…. The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce would love it! They’re always looking for some fresh gimmick to promote hometown shopping.”

The innkeeper can hardly contain himself: “Why, if this caught on, stores would have to stock up months in advance and keep the doors open extra hours to accommodate the shoppers. What a boon for the economy! Who knows, it might catch on in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth!”

His wife shakes her head.

“Now, dear. Your imagination is running away with you. You don’t think anyone would actually try to make a buck off of something so sacred as Christ’s birth, do you?”

Such a backward time and such a strange land…. Do you suppose God knew what he was doing when he sent his son to Israel in 4 B.C.? Maybe our time is a little backward and our land is a little strange.

Maybe 4 B.C. Israel fit the divine timetable because God wanted to send his Son into an environment where people yearned for the intervention of the Holy in their lives, where they anticipated the miraculous without being jaded by hype or hardened by cynicism.

Maybe God wanted to come to a people whose hearts ached for change, who needed good news.

Maybe God wanted to come to a people who would ponder these things in their hearts rather than peddle them for a profit.

Maybe God wanted to come to a people who knew they desperately needed a Savior.

Maybe God still wants to.

More from article archives
DEATHS: Belinda Barton, 37
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN Belinda Ann Barton, 37, a homemaker, died Aug. 9 at...
Read More