Oh, when I come to die.
Oh, when I come to die.
Oh, when I come to die, give me Jesus.
Dark midnight was my cry.
Yes, dark midnight was my cry.
Dark midnight was my cry, but give me Jesus.
And in the morning when I rise.
In that morning when I rise.
In that morning when I rise, give me Jesus.
You may have this whole world. But give me Jesus.
My ancestors were people plucked from their homes on the continent of Africa by other Africans, by Arabs and Europeans. And they were sold to slave traders for the sake of a booming economy in the Americas, the New World. They passed through the death of the Middle Passage and resurrected in a hell called American slavery. For four hundred years, generation after generation, they lived in a culture that used religion to reinforce their oppression and to give rationale to their inferior but essential status as fuel for the economy.
Now the common reference in many agricultural societies for the demanding work of farm labor is a reference that says we worked from sun-up to sundown. But the slaves coined the phrase “working from can till can’t.” For theirs was a life of uninterrupted dehumanizing misery, designed to use the body and break the spirit. But without the spirit they could not survive. No human whose spirit is broken can survive. So they had to make a choice. They could accept the religious apology offered for their slavery and then become robotic, cynical or nihilistic. On the other hand, they could enshrine what they could remember of the old pagan ways and live archaicly in the past. Or, they could find God anew in a “weary land.”
And so many of them did, despite the dominant culture’s abuse of the Christian religion, they transcended the oppressive propaganda of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American theology to discover the true power of the Gospel: Jesus Christ, the living Lord, the eternal love of God for the world that included them.
They found in the Bible stories of liberation and of hope, of meaning and of worth; and from this faith they produced what many believed to be the most powerful and enduring genre of American religious music. We call them “ Spirituals.”
Today, it is not only the music of liberation movements around the world where democracy is being resurrected, but even the Jewish community uses such songs as “Go down, Moses” to enliven and renew their commitment to Passover and Seder ceremonies, lest they forget their own suffering and liberation.
For the people who lived daily with death, death of dignity, death of hope, death of meaning as well as death of the body, somehow found hope in the resurrected Jesus. But their discovery of faith in Jesus did not begin with an historical search for Jesus, although they were actually doing biblical and theological criticism long before American seminaries. They had a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” as the feminists teach us. You can hear it in some of the spirituals when they sang things such as, “Everybody talkin’ about heaven ain’t goin’ there.” Theirs was the discovery of the true Christian faith that did not begin with a liturgical search of rituals and rites and sacraments. For it was hard to find meaning in a cultic drama when you could only hear it from the wagons outside or share vicariously from a segregated balcony. Their faith in a resurrected Jesus was not found in liturgical art of carvings and stained glass windows, “where angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” (including God incarnate) looked European.
No, somehow, in their suffering, like the first Easter Christians, many found Jesus living and transcendent, Jesus rising from the pain and suffering, with him they rose from their own Good Friday and from the despair of their own dark midnight of the cold tomb of Holy Saturday. And they found in Jesus their power for resurrection. They found the Jesus of suffering whom they identified as their brother and as their friend. They found him not just in the Bible, not just in a prayer book, but in their very midst, in their very lives. Jesus, their living Lord, walking on the road to Emmaus: from Jerusalem to Emmaus, from the cold tomb of despair to the joy of a resurrection faith.
So they sang out, “Dark midnight was my cry, but give me Jesus.”
It was there that they found the power to believe that “Jesus is a rock in a weary land and a shelter from the stormy blast.” And because Jesus was alive for them, they found a particular power in the passion and resurrection stories of Jesus. They felt that somehow they actually knew Jesus’ suffering and loneliness; and they knew that he knew theirs as well. And he showed them that it was survivable. So they sang with a greater confidence, “Jesus walked that lonesome valley for himself. You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley for yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you. You’ve got to walk it for yourself.”
And then they asked perhaps the most poignant question of the season: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?” To the tree, not the pretty cross of precious metals. Not the finely finished wood, but to the tree—the roughly hued splintered wood of a tree. They wanted to know, were you there? And then they said, “Yes, yes, I was there in my own experience; in my own suffering somehow I identify with the passion of Jesus.” Then they say, “Sometime, you know, it causes me to tremble, to tremble, to tremble.” Then they looked out at us and said, “Were you there, were you there in your own time of abandonment and suffering, in your moments of loneliness and fear when you had to walk the valley of the shadow of the death? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
But they did not stop with empathy. Because for them the resurrected Jesus was not the passive victim of abuse but the strong one determined to be the Messiah of hope and of liberation. And so it enabled them to sing with courage, “Ride on, King Jesus. For no man can hinder me. Ride on, King Jesus! No man can hinder me.” Then someone picked up a refrain and sang, “Oh freedom. Oh freedom over me. And before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave; and go home to be free with my Lord.” They understood a resurrected Jesus.
No, this is no Jesus meek and mild. It was the Jesus who rose above suffering, oppression and death. This was the Jesus of Easter. And like the first Christians, they found the resurrected Jesus alive and transcended and in their midst, in their experiences and in their daily lives.
Their approach to faith makes me think of the words of Saint Anselm in his Prologia where he wrote: “For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also,” Saint Anselm said, “that unless I believe, I shall not understand.”
Because they believed, they understood the power not only of the Bible story, but the sacramental meaning of the resurrection that we celebrate even today in the Eucharist. Therefore they could sing, “Let us break bread together on our knees. When I fall on my knees, with my face to the rising sun, O Lord, have mercy on me.”
Well, today you and I live in a spiritually strange world; spiritually a “weary land.” And we are trying to find solid ground in the shifting sands of a fastly changing world. And the question is, How can you and I in the twenty-first century find in Jesus that God who is the “rock in a weary land”? Many of us today feel that we can only find Jesus if we find historically accurate words, places and the actions of Jesus. What can I rationally know by the certainty of intellectual inquiry, and it is upon this that I will build my faith?
But we are not looking then for the resurrected Jesus. We are looking for the historical Jesus. We are not on the road to Emmaus. We are walking from the tomb backwards. But Jesus is to be found on the road to Emmaus, leaving death and despair behind and moving to new life. Today, many of us, I am sure, are desperately realizing that the cost of success–and not just success but even the cost of survival in the market economy–can be the price of one soul. We live in a culture that tells us that our spiritual needs for love, for meaningful relationships, a desire to make a contribution to the healing of community, to find personal peace–these are matters of the soul. And we are finding that they are secondary to the needs and rewards of our professions, of our careers and our ambitions. There seems to be so little time for our spirits. We may drive a luxury car and live in a big house, but too many of us are slaves to the market place, working from “can till can’t.”
I know that too often we look around and it seems that organized religion is only about secular politics or ecclesial infighting. And I must admit that I am embarrassed that energies of the church are often exhausted with the maintainance of status quo, of control and exclusion. So many reject Christianity for a new paganism that is finding refuge in nature or finding it in some forms of new age spirituality. The problem is that retreating to the outdoors or utilizing exotic techniques of meditation, or even those wonderful health-kicks, in and of themselves tend to serve as little more than pain medication that masks the aches and symptoms of an ailing soul. What we seek is peace, and not temporary distraction from the “troubles of this world.”
But only faith in God can cure the malady of the soul. As the spiritual says, “Yes, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” And that balm, that solve, that medicinal grace is to open ourselves to taste and discover the liberating love of a living Lord. The love of God that sustained Jesus in a weary land, that gave him hope in the dark midnights of his soul, the love that gave him power to rise on Easter morning. Because he lives, we can live.
I love the words from that great resurrection anthem that we say in the burial office at funerals. I know you’ve heard it, but listen to it once again. “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he will stand upon the earth at the last. After my waking he will raise me up, and in my body I shall see God. I shall see God, myself, my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”
The power of resurrection that Christian faith offers us is not only for the life to come, but it is power to live anew in this life, in this world. For we know the eternal God in this life, in its trials and in its joys, and when we know God in this life and in these ways we can accept what we do not know because of who we know. We may not know what God Incarnate physically or metaphysically looks like, but in that day we will know love when we see it. In that day, the dark midnights of our soul, we can always know the light of hope when we see it. We do not need a stained glass window or a hymn or scholarly research or a liturgy to tell us what the resurrected Lord looks like. For we believe that the love of God that we know in this life will be more fully revealed to us in the life to come. And because of that love in our lives we can trust it for the life to come.
So when I come to die, give me Jesus.
When I come to die, give me Jesus.
When I come to die, give me Jesus.
You may have this whole world, but give me Jesus.
And when dark midnight is when I cry, give me Jesus.
When dark midnight is your cry, we give you Jesus.
You may have this whole world, but give me Jesus.
And in that morning when I rise,
in that morning when I rise,
in that morning when I rise, give me Jesus!
You may have this whole world, but give me Jesus!”