Were you there?

Good Friday – Fr. J. Devin Rodgers

My grandma sat next to me on the pew holding the hymnal low. She pointed to the words in the worn out, red hymnal so that I could follow along. 

I was too young to read. I barely knew the story they were singing about, but deep inside I knew it was something profound. 

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

The pianist played an upright piano at the front of the church and the voices inside Mt. Union United Methodist church sang, some soft, some loud and some with wide and soulful vibrato. 

It was moving.

Having no concept of how long ago this story they were talking about actually happened, I remember thinking to myself. “Of course I wasn’t there. Were the other people singing this song near me there?”

It was dark outside, and I was not sure why we had gone to church at night. Church was something we did on Sunday mornings.

However, this night was different and the church felt different. The singers were singing with intention and with a piety I hadn’t experienced before. 

The feeling of devotion and solemnity was present and the feeling of connectedness to God  hung in the air over the congregation like the final note of a hymn that lingers in reverberation. 

You could feel it in the church. You could hear it in the singing.

The service ended, and I don’t remember much else about the evening. I do remember gathering our coats. We moved towards the double doors that stood at the top of the steps of our country church. A man handed me a small metal cross and told me to keep it in my pocket, the words inscribed on it said, “Jesus loves you”

We got in the car, drove back to my Gram’s house and as we drove through the wooded roads, past the moonlit unplanted farms, the song still ran through my head.

“Were you there when they nailed him to the tree…”

How scary…How sad…

Who did see Jesus nailed to the tree? 

Certainly not me. I don’t think anyone at church that night did either. 

Nor did the first singers of this well-known African American Spiritual. 

This Lent each Wednesday evening a group from St. Alban’s gathered on Zoom to study the scriptures in tangent lessons from American History and the words of an African American Spiritual.

Over the course of five weeks we studied, prayed over, and talked about our faith and the parallels that ran in these soulful songs.

However, our Bible study did not make it to the final chapter of that Bible study, the chapter that reflected on “Were you there.” I saved that chapter for tonight. We will sing that song tonight.

This year after learning and praying along with members of our church and after studying the scriptures. “Were you there” takes on so much more meaning.

African American Spirituals were born in the midst of slavery. They reflected on and helped make spiritual meaning out of the real-life experiences of the slaves. 

Despite their subhuman treatment, despite a society that literally told them they had no souls, these songs rose from their community. 

“Despite draining work the communal musical witness ensured the slaves that they were in fact alive and connected to the Divine” [1]

The Holy Spirit welled up within them and gave birth to deeply moving texts and melodies that have been passed from generation to generation. 

This spiritual in particular connected the slaves to one of the most abusive and dehumanizing elements of enslavement. 

Author Marilyn E. Thorton writes:

This song is one of lament in which African American slaves ask an existential question concerning an event at which their physical presence was impossible: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” However, anyone who had seen the brutal punishments of the era trembled in emphatic thought. 

The slaves identified with the crucifixion of Christ as they themselves saw their families and loved ones beaten, mocked and dehumanized under the crushing weight the system of chattel slavery.  

Their experience and the experience of Jesus were held side by side in their collective song. 

Yet, they knew the truth that Christ in his suffering stood in solidarity with them.

And so perhaps while these original forebears in faith, the slaves, and we  ourselves were not physically present at the crucifixion of our Lord, the story of Christ’s passion is one that reverberates throughout history in the lives of those who suffer and are crucified in the modern systems that oppress and deny or degrade the image of God embedded within each of us. 

Chattel slavery has ended. But in modern systems the degradation of the divine image, the rejection and destruction of life still persists. 

Where human suffering exists, we still see the crucified Christ longing to repair the breach between humanity and God. 

As the Collect for Mission in the Book of Common Prayer states:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that EVERYONE might come within the reach of your saving embrace. 

This perfect sacrifice is not limited by time or space or location, and so his reaching still continues today to the suffering, to the lost, to each and every single one of us.

That is why we call today Good Friday. 

And so thirty some years later, I have to come back to the question that was posed to me in the pious and faithful voices of that country church congregation.

“Was I there when they crucified our Lord?” 

I must change my answer. 

Yes. 

Two thousand years later, we must take our place at the foot of the cross and 

Look on the one whom they have pierced.

Our place is beside Mary the Godbearer, The disciple whom Jesus loved, Mary Magdalene, Salome, and all the faithful followers who looked on bore witness to his crucifixion.

But, if I am to be honest, I must also recognize that there are others whose story I don’t like to admit runs parallel to mine.

The centurions, the thieves on Christ’s right and left, the disciples who abandoned him, and Those who nailed his feet and hands to the tree. 

All who hated him and loved him were there. 

But those who loved him carried out what would eventually be the last verse of the hymn.

“Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?”

Joseph of Arimethea took the body of Jesus, prepared it and laid it a tomb, in which no one had been laid. 

The act of love and care for Christ was hurried as the Sabbath was rapidly approaching.

The tomb was sealed, but lips were not. 

The story was shared and passed from person to person bearing witness to the events that had unfolded. Sharing the story.

It’s carried from Golgotha into the streets.

Throughout Jerusalem neighbor asked neighbor.

“Were you there?” 

“Did you hear what happened?”

“Can you believe it?” 

“I’m sharing this story, so you know, and I swear I’m telling you the truth? Please believe what I’m telling you.”

Centuries later, enslaved workers in the field sang out the question while they worked. They experienced the story firsthand.

“Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?” Their song comes to us and…

Found its way into a tattered red hymnal held in the hands of my grandma at a small country parish in Pennsylvania. It was given voice and once again reverberated among the faithful.

“Were you there?”

It still points us toward the suffering of those crushed under sin and oppression.

It comes to us today. 

“Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?”

Yes.

But, I also know that’s not the final verse, and we will all eventually sing that one together with him. 


[1] Plenty Good Room by Marilyn E. Thorton p. 8-9