I have an old, worn-out VHS tape that I watch each year at least once during Holy Week. It’s of a play that used to be staged by the Pentecostal church in Alexandria, Louisiana called Messiah, which was a sweeping two-hour pageant of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus taken straight from the pages of the Gospels and interwoven with worship music.
On April 8, 2000 President Bill Clinton attended a performance of Messiah, and after the performance he decided to take the stage and make some unscripted remarks to the cast and audience. That’s when something happened that nobody expected: Mr. Clinton admitted publicly, for the first and only time on record, that at some point during the Monica Lewinsky scandal he feared that he would not be allowed to complete his second term as president.
The New York Times immediately printed an article about the President’s momentary candor, but struggled to understand what had moved Mr. Clinton to let his guard down and speak so freely, deciding that it must have been the “rousing performance of Handel’s Messiah”. But in reading some of the President’s other remarks one begins to see that this may not have been just a slip of the tongue, but rather an admission that Mr. Clinton felt comfortable making in that place and at that moment, having been deeply moved by something he experienced that night:
“Well, I am rarely at a loss for words. I use words for a living. I have done reasonably well at it. And I am virtually speechless… “
“I bet I cried through more of this tonight than anybody else here…”
“I’m grateful that one more time in my life I got to sit here and be bathed in the glorious love of all these singers and actors and all the people that put together this Messiah service. It was a blessing that I will have with me for the rest of my life.”
There has been a lot of talk since the Mockingbird Conference about abreaction, which can be defined as a release that brings repressed emotions to the surface so that one can deal with them. Abreaction often occurs for us through movies, literature and plays which we identify with in a particular emotion, and it’s a healthy response—a type of catharsis that helps us to deal with painful or traumatic events.
The Messiah performance must have provided abreaction for Mr. Clinton, allowing him to speak openly and honestly from his heart about something he had carried hidden for some time. The New York Times missed that detail, but you and I as fellow sufferers can certainly understand it.
[My wife] Kerry and I attended a performance of Messiah in 1994, and I think I can shed some light on what affected Mr. Clinton, because it affected me the night I sat in the audience and it affects me every time I pull out my old video.
The play is written so that one can really identify with this character Jesus. He’s so kind and good that one can’t help but love him. Then of course they kill him, and they do so in an arresting way: a series of still-lifes set to music, depicting each step of the whole bloody Good Friday scene, and at the last part the still-life springs to life—people are screaming and wailing, centurions are shouting orders, confusion is everywhere. The cross swings into position, the music stops, and there hangs Jesus, again in still-life.
I think what makes this so powerful is that the faces of the actors are not faces from 2000 years ago, but rather these are actors with faces that look like us today. And when the centurion yells “Get his hands”, he says it in a thick drawl that is immediately familiar to a southern ear. It drives home the fact that average people just like you and I played our parts in the Crucifixion. Indeed, the same event could just as easily have transpired today with you and me shouting, “Crucify, crucify him” as it did some 2000 years ago.
When I see that scene the thought immediately comes to my mind, “Lord, it could have been me killing you. It could have been me mocking you, scourging you, casting lots for your garments, spitting on you and cursing you.” And then I am reduced to only being able to say through my tears, “I’m sorry, Lord. I’m just so sorry for what we did to you.” And then finally, “My Lord and my God” is all that I can say. And there is real abreaction in that moment.
Here is a clip from that scene. It starts with about a minute of music-filled darkness, and ends with silence and still-life.
May the mercy he showed the Thief and the love he showed the Doubter
Be and abide with us all this Good Friday and Easter. Amen