Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?
Several years ago I visited a nonprofit organization that works with women transitioning out of incarceration. It’s located in one of the far western counties of our state. My visit there was for a Diocese of WNC board that I was serving on at the time. We had awarded a grant to this particular agency. So I had a great visit with a terrific organization doing wonderful work in this world, but the weather was not so great.
It stormed the entire way on my drive over there. Finally that evening the rain stopped and the sun started to appear. Since I was already over there in those beautiful high mountains, I decided to take the scenic route home.The Blue Ridge Parkway is one of my favorite spots in WNC so I planned to take it all the way over to Brevard and come home to Hendersonville that way.
If you’ve ever been on the Parkway, you know that wherever you access it there are these yellow signs that say, “Warning: Avoid Parkway during fog, snow and ice.” I’ve passed by those signs hundreds of times without ever really paying attention. There wasn’t any fog, snow or ice down in the valley where I picked up the parkway.
Somewhere near Richland Balsam, which, at around 6000 feet, is officially the highest part of the actual roadway, I saw clouds starting to hug and climb over the mountains around me. At first it wasn’t that bad and then it was. It quickly turned into a really, really bad situation as I realized this wasn’t just normal fog. I thought, “Oh. This is what those yellow signs have been talking about all along.” I had somehow managed to drive into total white out conditions. It’s the same kind of disorienting danger that pilots experience when they lose their visual references. The ground, the horizon and the sky all disappear and become one.
Now, the Blue Ridge Parkway is designed to be a visually stunning experience, so that means it’s very curvy with lots of steep, high elevation drop offs around almost every curve. There were no views on that day, but I knew those drop offs were still there somewhere. It was almost zero visibility. The sun was shining somewhere above it all and that made it worse because it illuminated the clouds and caused everything to be bright white.
I was stuck. I couldn’t see a way to go forward, backward or sideways. I was afraid of driving off the edge of one of those cliffs, but I didn’t want to stop and just be sitting in the middle of the road waiting for someone else to come along and help knock me off the edge of one of those cliffs. If I could have seen enough to have located one of the Parkway overlooks, I probably would have pulled off and maybe just waited it out even thoughI had no idea how long those high mountain elevations would be socked in with clouds. There also was no cell service that far out.
I was shocked by how quickly everything could go from sunny and clear to the worst driving conditions I have ever encountered. I was totally lost, even though I knew exactly where I was. It felt like the whole world had closed around me and it just came out of nowhere because I had not really understood all the clues about what was ahead of me.
That’s how Good Friday feels to me. Jesus has been dropping clues all along about what was ahead of him as we’ve moved through the Gospel story week after week, but somehow Good Friday still catches us off guard.
Think about how fast we went from the sunshine and hosannas of Palm Sunday to the mid-day darkness of the worst that humanity has to offer. Good Friday is a tale of betrayal, injustice, torture and violent death, all orchestrated by civil and religious power that’s mainly interested in preserving the status quo above everything else. It seems to just come out of nowhere and close around the world. The followers of Jesus were left unable to see which way to move: forward, backway or sideways.
What an utterly ironic name for this day: “Good Friday.” It’s as bad of a day as possible and that’s precisely why it’s vital we not skip over it. The truth is every day isn’t sunny in the real world. Every day isn’t Easter. We will all, at one point or another, be caught off guard by things that seem to just seem to come out of nowhere and turn the world upside down.
So, “were you there when they crucified my Lord?” If the question is literal and historical, then the answer is, “No.”. It happened 2000 years before we were born. If the question is spiritual, then it’s a “Yes.” We have all been there to some degree on our surprising, blinding worst days and more importantly, Jesus has been there with us too.
It turns out that the story of Emanuel, which means God is with us, could never be complete until Jesus was with us on the days when it doesn’t feel like God is with us at all.
On the cross, Jesus we hear Jesus give voice to the words of Psalm 22 which express something that probably every person alive has felt or will at one time or another feel: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Good Friday is where God enters our painful world and meets us in those places where we feel the most abandoned and alone.
“Were you there?” Some of you within the sound of my voice may be there today. For some people this whole last year has been Good Friday, full of unspeakable loss.
Those soulful questions that we’ll hear over and over again in that famous song are indeed spiritual. In fact, it’s very style of music is called a “spiritual”. It was composed by people who also experienced the very worst that humanity has to offer. Spirituals were born out of the experiences of Afrcian Americans who were enslaved, tortured, lynched and oppressed by injustice through dehumanizing forces that are still at work all the way up through today.
Slavery, segregation and exclusion has been, just as injustice was in the time of Jesus, mostly orchestrated by the powers that be, bent on preserving a status quo above all else.
If we’re honest, we all know that the people who did such things read the Bible, sang hymns and went to church on Sundays. Promoters of bigotry have always been able to selectively quote the Bible and misuse the letter of Scripture to evade the spirit of it. That hasn’t stopped.
But the people who composed “Were you there?” were also listening to the Bible. They were paying attention and they understood it’s heart. Throughout the history of Christianity those who are oppressed often understand it’s meaning far better than their oppressors.
Spirituals gave voice to the truth that God is a Redeemer who heard the cries of slaves in Egypt. God is a liberator who stands on the side of justice even when the status quo is built on injustice. Jesus is a Savior whose path travels through the worst humanity has to offer and it leads toward hope.
Is it any wonder that song is so powerful? In fact, it was so powerful that in 1940 it was included in the Episcopal Church hymnal, which apparently was somehow a very radical move in the 1940s because that made it the first spiritual to be included in any major American hymnal at a time when separate restrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate schools, separate churches were upheld by law after law across parts of this country,
“Were You There?” now has a long tradition of use in Good Friday services because in it we hear spiritual kinship with Jesus, crucified, nailed to a tree, pierced in the side and laid in a tomb. In it we discover that Jesus stands in solidarity with all who suffer injustice, cruelty, rejection and hate.
So, there I was, scared and stranded in the blinding fog up in the high mountains. Since I could only see just a few feet, I stopped looking for the sky or trees or any kind of landmarks in any direction around me. I opened the door to my truck and discovered I could just barely make out the double yellow lines in the middle of the paved road beneath me. I found that if I kept my door open and watched the lines I could steer parallel to them, where they curved and where they went straight. It turns out there was a path clearly marked for me to follow. Progress was slow and unnerving, but eventually after several miles and a very long time I started to emerge from the zero visibility conditions.
I have never been so grateful for the efficiency of a highway paving crew. I wasn’t there when those lines were painted, but the people who marked them out in yellow paint sure were present with me that day.
My sisters and brothers, on our worst days, the path of Jesus holds the promise that he has been there and he knows the way through.
Therein is the power of the Gospel we proclaim. We live in a hurting world that is no longer interested in playing religious games. People just want to know if any of this matters. Are we ultimately alone in this world?
Good Friday is God’s answer: We are not alone. God is with us in the darkness. God is with us in the confusion. Good Friday means that Jesus isn’t some remote, distant figure who dwells in safety of the sweet by and by. Jesus is very much with us in the painful now and now.
Were you there? Yes. We all were and the cross of Christ means that God is with us too.