Marina Prior will be joining the Bible Society's Easter Celebration, at Sydney Town Hall, bringing the real meaning of Easter. Braden Blyde reports.
When you think about Easter, is it rabbits, eggs and chocolate that springs to mind? Or do you recall a deeper meaning to the holiday? Is there any thought of Jesus' death and resurrection, Jesus on the cross outside Old Jerusalem and what that meant? The Bible Society of NSW is posing this same question to all Australians through its 2006 Celebration of Word and Song, performed annually in Sydney's Town Hall. The dramatic, musical program presents what program producer and Bible Society communication manager Martin Johnson is adamant about—sharing Easter's true meaning.
“What happened is the Easter bunny has come along and eggs are now used as a sign for new life,” Johnson says. “People tend to forget Easter's true meaning. What we want to do is to remind them that Easter does have another meaning and people need to decide for themselves which is most important.” This year's instalment will see a continuation of the realistic and confronting presentation of the Easter story that evolved in 2005: Blood is splattered on Christ's back as He bears the cross in front of a captivated audience; they watch as He dies an agonising death and are wowed as He rises again, moving through the crowd to be crowned King.
While the majority of the Bible Society's work involves the translation and distribution of the Bible to non-Christian populations around the globe, the Celebration, while a vastly different affair, fits snugly within the Bible Society's vision statement: “To make the word of God available in a language they understand, in a format they can use and at a price they can afford.” According to Johnson, the words spoken in the production come directly from Scripture, and while evolutionary format changes have occurred during its 14-year history, he's sure of one thing—“We don't need to change the words.” This year's production will be staged on April 1, timing that allows it to be aired on Good Friday through the Channel 7 network, repeated on Easter Sunday on Australian Christian Channel and FM- 103.2 in Sydney. The Town Hall has been the venue of choice for the production over the past five years and its 2000-plus seats are always fully occupied. But evangelism isn't the motivation for Celebration, says Johnson. “Our aim is to make the program one that will be enjoyed by our donors and supporters. It doesn't specifically ask for a spiritual response,” he says. “However the [Channel 7] broadcast is aimed at a non-church audience, who may for the first time come to understand the true meaning of Easter.” While the majority of Australians aren't active churchgoers, Johnson believes there is an “undercurrent” of religious knowledge throughout the nation. “Australian society is undeniably secular, but around 70 per cent of people class themselves as Christians,” he says. “People have a background noise of faith. They have an understanding about Christ and the Easter story. We catch them at the peak of interest and encourage and give them the opportunity to learn more.” The program began with a humble gathering of 90 persons in St Andrews Cathedral, Sydney, in 1992, inspired by a Bible Society member who had witnessed a similar event while on a European holiday.
However, that early, conservative program is but a shadow of the multimedia production of 2006.
This year's specially commissioned music is composed and arranged by Sydney-based composer-songwriter Ken Lai. The contemporary score is written specifically for the ebbs and flows of the program's dramatic structure each year and is a small insight into the high production values in place. For up to three months before the performance actors are rehearsing, the 12-piece string orchestra is fine-tuning and the 250-voice Combined Christian Churches Choir prepares.
While many religious programs aim to capture the ever-shortening attention span of adolescents, the Bible Society makes a concerted effort to remain true to its primary audience. “We realise it isn't a Youth Alive ‑ type of event, nor is it a Christian rock concert,” says Johnson. “Those sort of events are done well by others. The Celebration fills a gap in the market. Neither is it Handel's Messiah ; it's aiming for the middle ground.” This focus ensures that Celebration is a one-of-a-kind event. While dramatic presentations of the Easter story abound, none has been able match the scale of the Bible Society's production, thanks largely to the involvement of Channel 7.
And just as Hollywood uses big names to draw the crowds, Celebration aims to attract a wider audience by utilising the talent and star power of acclaimed performing artists year by year. Singer Marina Prior will star in this year's presentation.
“I'm so excited to be a part of the Celebration of Word and Song,” Ms Prior says. “God is doing such amazing things across our nation, and it is such an honour to be involved in His work at such a significant time.” “It will be a delight to have her on the show,” Johnson adds. “It will make it easier for church attendees to invite their friends, because it isn't church. There's a high entertainment value, with the use of high calibre artists.” But Johnson insists all major players in the production are committed Christians. “It's important, because they bring something extra to the performance when they believe in it,” he says.
Although finding stardom playing lead roles in musicals, including Les Miserables , The Phantom of the Opera and The Pirates of Penzance , Ms Prior takes her faith very seriously and has been involved in numerous community-service projects around Australia. This year she has also taken on the role of Good Will Ambassador for aid agency Samaritans Purse, and the Bible Society is using this connection to launch a combined appeal at the Celebration. At the time of writing details of the appeal are still being finalised but it has been confirmed the money raised will be used to provide scriptures to a yet-to-be-specified region in South-East Asia.
“Celebration is an expensive venture,” says Johnson, “so we're extremely grateful to our sponsors.” This year sponsors include Adventist Media Centre, Signs Publishing (publishers of Signs of the Times ), Anglican Media TVS, and EIGAnsvar, which ensures its viablity.
“This kind of program helps people engage with the Word,” Johnson concludes. “We want people to understand that Christ's death at Easter is integral to the message of the Bible.”