I Was There

A Good Friday personal reflection based on Mark 14.1-15.47.

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Today, personalizing the plaintive query of the spiritual[1] – Was I there when they crucified my Lord? – I ask what would I have done?

Whenever I read the account of Jesus’ crucifixion and death, I find myself, almost unconsciously, focusing on those who were involved. In this, I confess my tendency to take note of what I deem to be their character flaws.

(As much as I fight against it, I occasionally succumb to the human inclination to compare myself with others in order to bolster my self-esteem. Jesus’ suffering and death provides more than ample input for my periodic self-reclamation project!)

I am disheartened by the blindness, perhaps a condition of jealousy, of those who, in sending Jesus to Pontius Pilate, rejected one who sought to do good.

And disturbed that the crowd, when given an opportunity to release Jesus, chose to beg for the freedom of Barabbas, a terrorist.

And dismayed by the increasingly violent crowd, surely, some of whom, given the innate mindlessness of a mob mentality, neither knew the what nor the why of their cry, “Crucify him!”

And disgusted by the pitiless cruelty of the soldiers who scorned and scourged Jesus; offering in their defense the emptiest, most evasive excuse that they merely followed orders.

And disillusioned by the contemptible cowardice of the disciples, who, in Jesus’ greatest, gravest hour of need, fled.

Yet, in my disheartened, disturbed, dismayed, disgusted, and disillusioned arrogance, I am secure in my sense of my moral superiority only for the briefest moment before I hear again that haunting question: Was I there when they crucified my Lord?

Physically, no. Spiritually, yes. Thus, no less humanly and truly. For those who were there are like me and I like them. Their faces are a mirror into which I gaze and behold my reflection. Hence, if I had been there, the result would have been the same. Jesus would have been crucified.  Jesus would have died. For this, I tremble in sorrow.

But, as this is Good Friday, I tremble, if not with joy, then with anticipation of a new possibility. A new possibility that is possible only when I see myself (or, as I am wont to say my self) clearly.

Thus, I look beyond all who opposed Jesus and the crowd, Pontius Pilate and the soldiers, and the disciples. I look into the face of Jesus crucified on the cross.

In his face, I behold my human reflection. In his face, I behold my new possibility.

That I, like Jesus, who, given what I believe, what I know from the gospel narrative, submitted willingly to his death,[2] might choose to die. That I might choose to crucify, to put to death all that is within me that makes for death – my jealousies, my favoring retaliation over reconciliation, my thoughtless violence in word and deed, my acts of cruelty, my cowardice in the face of trial.

Was I there when they crucified my Lord? Yes. And if I dare to see in the cross of Jesus not only a terrible instrument of human cruelty, but also an anticipatory sign of my new possibility, then I, not only in mourning, but also in thanksgiving, might sing:

Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.

For I was there when they crucified my Lord.

© 2021 PRA

Illustration: Crucifixion (c. 1618-1620), detail (for effect, filtered and adjusted for light and color); Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

[1]Were You There, likely composed by slaves, was first published in William Eleazar Barton’s Old Plantation Hymns (1899).


[2] Jesus said, “No one takes (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10.18). And, at the Last Supper, Jesus, knowing that Judas Iscariot would betray him, said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do”, after which Judas immediately went out (John 13.27, 30b).


3 thoughts on “I Was There

  1. Lordy Paul!
    It will take me the rest of the day to process all that is in here. It is incredibly sobering to accept that if we had been physically there it would likely not have changed anything. Listening to the George Floyd testimonies so many have said they wish they could have done something….
    What has impacted me the most about this post is the fact that we can find hope in the possibility. Your final sentence is what I’ll be focusing on this weekend – we are in mourning, but also in thanksgiving because of the new possibility for ME. Reflection really is everything!!

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  2. Dear Paul,

    I went and sat at the foot of the cross yesterday. I went to George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis and sat for a while very near the spot where George Floyd died, among candles, flowers – a few fresh and many dead or wilted, faded and ragged stuffed animals, posters, letters, notes, hand-painted pictures, and street graffiti with sentiments offering sorrow, anger, commitment, and love, and beneath a giant, somber, spray-painted portrait of George Floyd’s face on the bus shelter.

    It was calm and peaceful there. A couple of people wandered quietly in the two-block or so space still barricaded against the city’s normal traffic and business (although Cup Foods remains open a few steps away). A group of white men were setting up a tripod for a camera and talking in the street. Two Black men were working, apparently preparing ground for planting around the large metal, raised-fist sculpture in the middle of the 38th and Chicago intersection. In front of the Speedway gas station (now renamed “People’sWay” in a rough edit of its sign) across the street, a man paced on the sidewalk as he talked on his phone in front of a large placard of handwritten demands to the city regarding preserving the space. The door of a tiny, colorful “community book shelf” shed in the Speedway driveway stood open, revealing shelves packed with books, mostly for children.

    Sitting there is as close as I think I can come to physically sitting at the foot of the cross in today’s world. It’s where humanity met and still meets empire; it’s where mercy was and still is crushed under the knee of oppression; it’s where white supremacy confronted and still confronts imperfect and struggling multi-cultural community. It’s where you can go and be quiet and undisturbed while justice is considered, weighed, and meted out in the courthouse a couple of miles away. It’s where you can go and sometimes find some peace when there is no real peace much of anywhere. You don’t dare go there at night, because it’s dangerous, and people have been shot and killed there since George Floyd died. In other words, it’s a place where crucifixions happen, just like most places on this earth in this year 2021.

    Your question, “Was I there?” is so apt. For me, it becomes “Am I there?” Or perhaps better-stated, “Am I aware that I am there?” Am I aware that I cannot wash and sanitize my hands, as Pilate tried to do, of the myriad crucifixions that happen every day and every moment in this country and in this world? Am I aware that any peace I find is temporary and superficial? Am I aware that innocence dies all the time in the face of ignorance and indifference, including my own? Am I aware that I am always sitting at the foot of a cross?

    Those are my Good Friday thoughts in response to your prompting question, Paul. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as aware of where Good Friday places us as I am today. I have never been as aware as I am today of the WEIGHT of this place, this time, this Good Friday.

    I know Holy Week is a journey. And I know how and where it ends, but at the moment, I just don’t know how we will ever get there. This is what it feels like to be human alone, trusting to human devices, relying on human abilities. And I know that God must reappear, but just now I don’t see how.

    Love,

    Karen

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  3. Loretta and Karen, as I prepared this sermon, I thought to make a specific reference to George Floyd; his murder as a present-day crucifixion at the hands of state-authorized agents who, as in the cases of those charged with the death of Jesus, in the carrying out of their duties, overstepped by wide and long margins their observance of the law. However, after much thought, I chose not to do that. For, in my mind and heart, I sensed, I believed that in the light and shadow of the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, many would parallel the images of the deaths of Jesus and George Floyd. And, so, it seems to be so; surely, with the two of you and, certainly, with others, many others.

    “And I know that God must reappear, but just now I don’t see how.” My dear Karen, God hath appeared.

    When? In whom? Where?

    When you “went and sat at the foot of the cross…(in) George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis and sat for a while very near the spot where George Floyd died.”

    When you looked around and beheld the human-scape of “candles, flowers…ragged stuffed animals, posters, letters, notes, hand-painted pictures, and street graffiti with sentiments offering sorrow, anger, commitment, and love, and beneath a giant, somber, spray-painted portrait of George Floyd’s face on the bus shelter.” For in this way, you served as the eyes of God open and with tears sharing in the pathos of the Divine Self’s creation and creatures.

    For as God surely lives and moves and has God’s Being, via the Spirit, in us, God reappeared in your witness to love and to care in turning not away, in not avoiding this site of a present-day Golgotha.

    Do you wish that you could do more? I believe, in knowing you, that, yes, you do. In much the same way that many bystanders at the moment of George Floyd’s murder had wishes that they could have done more and, now, and, perhaps, for their lifetimes, bear the guilt of their anguished inability.

    And, in this, I ask, now, as I have in many times past in the moment of yet another incident evidencing the world’s and our human ills (and, doubtless, I will in times to come ’til I breathe no more), could God have done more? Yes, I say! Alas, cosmic intervention, at least, not in the manifold numbers for which the world’s and human ills cry, doth not seem to be God’s modus operandi. For, indeed, we are God’s co-agents. And, so, dear sister, you are and you were when you “went and sat at the foot of the cross…(in) George Floyd Square in south Minneapolis and sat for a while very near the spot where George Floyd died.”

    Bless you.

    Love you, Karen and Loretta, each and both,
    Paul

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