The With-God Life: Were You There?

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. (John 19:16b-18)

As a historian, everything I do hinges on the conviction that the past is not lost; history holds that it is possible to recover and reconstruct what has happened, even long ago and far away. Sometimes we even dare to use a different r-verb.

But I read John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion this morning, and instantly heard the powerful words of my favorite spiritual as a challenge, maybe even a taunt:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
O sometimes it causes me to tremble! tremble! tremble!
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

James Tissot, “What Our Lord Saw from the Cross” (1890) – Wikimedia/Brooklyn Museum

On Wednesday I might have dared to imagine I could hear the sounds of that scene, but the memory of the crucifixion doesn’t live in me like it did in its eyewitnesses. In Peter, whose memory must have cut between scenes of Jesus’ death and his denial. In Mary, flipping through mental images of Jesus’ birth, childhood, adolescence, and too-short adult life like we review photo albums. And, next to her, John, trying to put all he’d seen into words.

No, I wasn’t there. Not one of the billions commemorating the crucifixion today was there. Artists can paint and sculpt the Passion, and musicians can sing and play about it. Theologians can debate the atonement, and contemplatives can meditate on the mysteries of the Cross. Perhaps a few mystics have been momentarily transported to Golgotha.

But none of us was there.

All we can do is imagine the unimaginable: the death of God.

The easiest way to make that imaginative leap is to stretch a safety net under it: the knowledge that the tomb prepared by Joseph and Nicodemus will soon empty.

But on Good Friday, we open ourselves to telling and hearing the story without consolation. We dare to sip the most bitter of cups, the most sour of wines. To experience a fraction of the emotion that Mary and John and Peter felt as they watched the inconceivable agony that Jesus felt.

Today we dare to immerse ourselves in the desolation of that impossibly dark moment, when “the sun refused to shine” as humanity nailed its Lord and Savior to the cross.

And even though we weren’t actually there, it still causes us to tremble.

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