My Greatest Performance
That's Josh Mostel as King Herod from Jesus Christ Superstar. You'll see why.
When I was in seminary, I was very fortunate to work at St. Stephen's in McKeesport, PA (Pittsburgh). It wasn't that St. Stephen's was so great, it was that I got to work for Father Mark Lawrence. To this day he has my respect and admiration, and was surely the best boss I've ever had.
Mark was just elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. When I heard of this, I wrote him an e-mail. He wrote back to me, and in his e-mail encouraged me to read one of his Christmas articles from 2005. I did so, and here it is. Some of the facts are not entirely correct, but I address that at the end.
"It was one of the most electrifying moments I've ever seen in a Children's Christmas Pageant. Certainly the most electrifying I saw during my thirteen years as rector of St. Stephen's, McKeesport, PA. I need to sketch a little background here. Though we had smattering of business leaders, a mayor, a judge and state senator in the congregation—St. Stephen's was largely a blue-collar congregation.
Just that fall I had hired a new youth minister, Thomas Mackenzie. Thomas was a 23-year-old student of Trinity Seminary's youth ministry track. This was 1993. Thomas, who had braided hair down to the middle of his back; a goatee; several ear rings in each ear, hailed from Austin, Texas, the only child of older parents, both of whom were artists. He was, well, avant-garde and zany in everything but the creeds of the church, and there he was entirely conservative. But it was the only thing conservative about him.
Many of the parents were more than a little baffled by Thomas. So were a few of the kids in the youth group, but most found him an exciting addition. Well several months passed and the Sunday School was having their annual Xmas Pageant. Only the kid who was playing King Herod woke up with the stomach flu. So thirty minutes before the pageant the director saw Thomas walking in the halls and recruited him as a fill-in. Thomas had been a thespian in high school and college—so asking for the script, quickly looked it over, and said, "I'm in." So they busily went about getting him in a costume.
Well, the pageant was lurching forward in the usual manner—there were the normal missed lines...whispered from back stage; the Archangel standing in the pulpit, with wings and halo, hit the pulpit microphone as she gestured to "Be not afraid" jarring half the congregation off their pews; Shepherd # 1 spoke his lines boldly and clearly; Shepherd # 2 haltingly muttered her lines which were barely audible past the two front pews; and Shepherd # 3 obviously read his lines from a script taped to the back of a stuffed lamb that he was holding as a prop. Well they soon exited, and onto the stage, standing at the top of the chancel steps came Thomas dressed in his King Herod outfit. Down the center aisle came the Three Wise Men, and a lumbering camel—two kids in a brown sheet and a makeshift camel's head. The contingent stopped there at the chancel steps before King "Thomas," who was accompanied by a young Page.
Everything was going as expected until Thomas, fresh from his New Testament studies, decided to leave the script behind and play Herod as the paranoid, megalomaniac historians have long considered him to be. As any pageant director can imagine, the Three Wisemen were suddenly frozen. Any lines they had meagerly memorized were soon forgotten, and wouldn't have fit anyway with the inquisition that Herod was conducting. Herod filled the silence with another soliloquy that went on at some length, but not nearly long enough for any of the Wisemen to regain his composure. So Herod adjured them again to answer his questions but was greeted by a dreadful silence. After a third adjuring as to why they had disrupted him, one Wiseman volunteered the weak response: "Sir, we have seen a Star in the East ...to find a baby... a king of the Jews." "The Scroll"—demanded Herod of his Aid. The kid knowing this was not part of the script was as paralyzed as the Three Wisemen and so stood there as if nailed to the floor. "Well, go!" Gestured the impatient king. Leaving, the boy soon returned with a rolled up piece of paper that a desperate backstage crew had hastily wrapped with string. Untying the blank paper, Thomas intoned the words "And you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah are by no means least among the tribes of Judah, for from you shall come forth for me, one who is to be ruler in Israel...." "Go!" Adjured Thomas—"And when you find him...." The kids, still frozen and afraid to make eye contact, remained speechless. So the king, commanded more vehemently—"Go!" Then Thomas followed by his Aid, turned and exited to stage right. The organist coming to the rescue began playing "We Three Kings," and the Wisemen with visible relief headed back down the center aisle, and all, with deep sighs, went back to the script as rehearsed.
Still the scene was an electrifying moment. Having no script to follow, I could watch it unfold in all its unscripted excitement. I think it was similar at God's first Christmas Pageant in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago—that Pageant from which Love's scripted and unscripted mercy flows. For those who thought they had the script were paralyzed, or missed the action, unable to adapt; while those who thought they had no part to play received the announcement from angelic messengers or from the starry heavens and returned from their encounter joyfully transformed. We too will be celebrating the Birth of incarnate Love and his electrifying grace and mercy on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at St. Paul's. Certainly, you who know God's grace and mercy realize it is not limited to the Advent and Christmas seasons. It is a mercy and grace for all times and all seasons. It's just that at this time of year we rehearse it with the expectation that God's presence will infuse the script with much needed, and at times unscripted moments of grace. Of course it may paralyze some even as it electrifies and transforms others.
1) I only had three earrings, two in the left, one in the right.
2) I rarely braided my hair.
3) My name is spelled McKenzie
4) I have a younger sister
5) My dad is an old artist, my mom (now pretty old herself) is an educator.
As far as the performance, I said this back to Mark:
If I remember correctly, my improv was triggered by the wisemen's inability, or unwillingness, to say ANYTHING. I must admit I feel my performance was derivitive, having come mainly from a combination of The Last Temptation of Christ (the novel, not the movie) and Jesus Christ Superstar. But I had sooooo little to work with.
So, there it is, a window into my thespian past. Hope you enjoyed it.