“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” For many of us that haunting hymn keeps circling through our heads on a day like this, and in fact we will sing it in a few minutes. Good Friday is not simply about remembering a terrible event long ago, but about actually finding our own place at Calvary, that hill just outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. Today, we are called to linger there for awhile, staring at the cross where he hung and wondering what in the world it all means.

Albert Einstein once suggested that given quantum physics it was possible to imagine seeing events of history as they actually were happening. He said that if we had a spacecraft that could travel faster than the speed of light, we could hurl ourselves so far out that the reflection of light from Earth would be hundreds of years old. And if we could from that vantage look back at the earth with a tremendously powerful telescope we could actually see historic events taking place. So, if he’s right, we might actually see the life of Jesus Christ on earth, and we could see his trial before Pilate taking place, and see him dying on the cross.

Well, we can’t quite pull that off at this point, but even thinking about it reminds us that we’re talking today about something that not only happened once, but in some way is still happening and is still shaping our world. And so we have this Good Friday to help us find our place in those events that crucified our Lord, and to help us see why this day matters.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

We probe this story every year because we were there when they crucified our Lord, and in important ways we are there now. We are there in the overly enthusiastic crowd ready to chase after a new leader and quick to fade away when things get hard. We are there in the nervous and reactive religious leaders, obsessed with maintaining order and holding on to their version of truth, and in the betrayal of Judas, willing to hand over his Lord for we don’t really know what. To force his hand in leading a revolution? Simply for the pieces of silver? It’s hard to tell.

We are there in Pontius Pilate, a politician caught in the middle, doing his best to free Jesus, but when it looks too risky to do the right thing, he washes his hands of it. We are there in the soldiers, just following orders as they kill the Lord of life. And we are there in the disciples, who slip away so they can be safe.

The cross is not an isolated event sealed in an ancient time. It is the living truth of our world, the hard truth that we still live in a world that would kill Jesus. We all have a place on Calvary. There wasn’t a single motive in Jerusalem that last week that isn’t happening here in Washington right now, or in your hometown, or that couldn’t be found in some corner of your heart or mind. We were there.

And of course we live in a time of crucifixions aplenty. Four people killed two days ago on the streets of Washington, D.C., from drive-by gunfire, more numbers added to the massive toll from gun deaths in this city and across the country. Two wars in the Middle East devastating children and their families. An economic recession that has been hard for many around the globe and devastating for millions who were already just barely surviving. The earth itself is being crucified day by day by a human race reckless in its refusal to end the carbon poisoning of our planet. Prisons and death rows are bursting at the seams with people our society has abandoned. And daily we hurt, ignore, and wound those closest to us. A cross and nails are not always necessary to crucify.

Jesus was killed by people like you and me. What a terrible thing to say to such good people as you are, who are taking the time on a beautiful Friday to sit in church. But if we let ourselves off too easily, and fail to see the part we play in our world’s pain and brokenness, we miss the deepest truth of Good Friday—the chance to know an unimaginably forgiving love flowing from the cross.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we were there. We are there.

The Gospel of John’s account of the crucifixion seems calm and objective. Jesus seems almost serene throughout—the trial, carrying the cross, even hanging from the cross those three hours. John seems to know that no words could capture the reality of what happened: Jesus’ anguished suffering as he heaved his body up on his nailed hands and feet reaching for air, every movement sending daggers of pain shooting through him. It’s hard to imagine someone there watching for more than a moment without slipping away in a state of nausea and shock.

It’s that raw staring at the unspeakable that is captured in the paintings in the exhibit at the National Gallery of Art called “The Sacred Made Real.” In the early centuries of the church paintings of the crucifixion were formal and calm, often with Jesus wearing a crown on his head. He was the victor reigning from his cross. But from the Middle Ages on, painters have looked for God in the full, agonizing pain of the cross. In the National Gallery exhibit you see life-size painted wooden sculptures that would have been carried in Good Friday processions in seventeenth-century Spain. A full-size statue of Jesus as he is about to be crucified looks as if it could step off the platform and walk out of the gallery with you. The glass eyes look as real as yours, the sores on his back from the whipping look so fresh you imagine the thrashing just happened. And just next to the sculpture is a massive painting of Christ’s nailed body, blood streaming down, seeming to emerge from impenetrable blackness.

But strangely, at the same time, there is something strong, unyielding, and powerful about him. He is, in a way, a victor. There’s a haunting line that keeps turning up in John’s Gospel, as Jesus refers to the death he will face as “being lifted up.” “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” And early on Jesus refers to his impending death as his “glorification.” He seems to have a sense that in his death God will do something to change the world. If people see God’s bottomless love for what it is, if they see a love that will face every way we hurt, manipulate, damage, ignore, and even destroy one another, and if they see God still keep loving and forgiving us even into death, then something new will begin.

You see, the cross is all God has to bring us home. God is not an emperor who will coerce, a great manipulator in the sky who will force this world to change. The only power God has to change us and to heal our world is to win our hearts—to show us perfect, unstoppable love, a love that keeps pouring out moment by moment and is filling this Cathedral even now.

Today God shows us a love that can forgive and heal all that you and I and our lost human race have done to each other and to our world. This love is ready to absorb the worst of our lives and what we do to each other, to smother all of it in its unimaginable depths, to free us and to draw us into real lives. As the mystic Julian of Norwich once put it, all the sins of the entire human race is for God like a simple burning coal tossed into the sea.

There’s an ancient Christian prayer called the “Anima Christi” that has been used for the last seven hundred years that invites us to take everything we have to Jesus hanging on the cross. It goes like this:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me,
Body of Christ, save me,
Blood of Christ [overwhelm] me,
Water from the side of Christ wash me clean,
Passion of Christ comfort me,
Within thy wounds hide me,
Suffer me not to be separated from you.

Only that kind of love can save us.

In just a few minutes we will have a time to take our own prayers to the cross and open ourselves to this unfathomable love. Some of us will want to walk to the middle of the Cathedral and spend a few moments praying at the foot of the cross. Others of us will want simply to remain in our seats, take in the music, and pray in awe and thanksgiving. This is the time to open ourselves to this love hung on a cross for you, for me, for the whole world.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Yes, we were there.

And God was, too.

Sometimes it causes me to tremble.

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