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Were You There When?

There are moments when all we can do is be there: for the vigil at my mother’s bedside, through the anxious hours of a troubled labor, and during the awful hours of driving through the night after getting a call about the accident. In such moments, presence is all we have to offer . . . and when it counts the most.

The only time in the Gospels that Jesus explicitly asks for the presence of his closest disciples is on the night before he died. His Gethsemane request is “Remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matt. 26:38) His usual practice was to seek out places of solitude and pray alone. In his last hours, he asks his disciples to be with him, to keep vigil, and to encircle him with friendship and prayer.

Holy Week begins with cheering crowds, palm branches, and shouts of Hosanna. A few days later, things take an ugly turn – leading to Jesus’ passion and death. The words of an African American spiritual pose a haunting question: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” As we remember the tragic events of Holy Week, we are called to be there. Mustering the courage to stay present as the tragic events unfold immerses us in suffering, moves us to tears, and leaves us forever changed.

In the face of suffering and death, presence is not our default response. Our usual instinct is to avoid such situations at all costs. So much within us wants to turn away from the pain and find our way to safety. In Gethsemane, Jesus’ three closest disciples fell asleep. At the moment of his arrest, most of the twelve fled in fear. Peter was so scared that he denied he even knew Jesus. It’s hard to claim that in such desperate circumstances those of us living centuries later would have fared any better.

Holy Week poses a choice – for the disciples and for us. It urges us to stay present with the one who suffers, to summon the courage to be there. There are other options. We can nod off into the sleep of complacency – closing our eyes to the suffering and hiding in our comfort zones. Or fear can drive us to abandon the one we love – fleeing into the night to save our skin.

Having the courage to choose presence, to show up, and to “be there when they crucified my Lord” changes us. Following Jesus from Gethsemane to Calvary forces us to see things we will never forget. Choosing presence opens our hearts, moves us with compassion, and brings us to tears. With Simon of Cyrene, we will be dragged from the crowd and forced to help carry Jesus’ cross. With John and Jesus’ mother, we will find ourselves helpless and desperate at the foot of the cross. With Joseph of Arimathea, we will risk asking Pilate for Jesus’ body and lay it in our own tomb. With Mary Magdalene, we will watch from a distance as the stone is rolled into place. With all of them, we will wait . . . lost and grief stricken . . . not knowing what’s next.

As we walk to Calvary with Jesus, we meet the women weeping for him. His words to them are also meant for us: “Weep not for me, but for yourselves and for your children.” Those words open our eyes and our hearts to the suffering of the world. If we have ears to hear, Jesus’ words to the women are a call for us to be present with all who suffer.

We are the Body of Christ – intimately connected with one another and one with all who suffer. Whenever and wherever we encounter the suffering of our sisters and brothers, we encounter the crucified body of Christ.¹ The more present we are to the suffering of Christ, the more deeply we encounter the suffering of the world. Holy Week urges us beyond remembering the suffering of Jesus. It calls us to the place – both awful and sacred – where we encounter the crucified Body of Christ in all who suffer. “Were you there when they crucified my Lord” isn’t just a remembrance of Jesus’ suffering. It’s a call to bear the suffering of the world.

Encountering the crucified Body of Christ takes us to the place where we suffer with those who . . . 

Live in the midst of the violence and terror of war,

Suffer from the devastating effects of hurricanes, floods, fires, and tornados,

Are terrorized by the gangs and the violence in their neighborhoods, and

Are imprisoned for the “crimes” of race or mental illness.

Arrive at our border alone, broken, and desperate,

Are tortured at the hands of those clinging to power,

Suffer from the debilitating effects of trauma, and

Are trapped in cycles of systemic violence. 

Encountering the crucified Body of Christ in the suffering of the world can be overwhelming. Confronting what that encounter asks of us exposes our powerlessness. There is no way we can fix it. Yet we can still be there – one with all those who suffer. When presence is all we have, it’s when it counts the most.

There is a lesson to learn from those who were there when they crucified our Lord. It is a lesson we can take to our encounter with all those who suffer. The women who wept for Jesus couldn’t relieve his suffering, but their tears demonstrated he wasn’t alone. Simon of Cyrene couldn’t save Jesus from suffering and death, but he did ease the burden of his cross. John couldn’t prevent a mother’s grief, but he could care for her from that day forward. Joseph of Arimathea couldn’t intervene to prevent Jesus’ execution, but he could risk acknowledging his relationship with him and use his connections and means to lay his body to rest. Mary Magdalene couldn’t console her dying friend, but she watched and waited for the opportunity to anoint his body. None of them could prevent his suffering, provide a fix, or save the day. Yet each of them had the courage to stay present and offer what they could. 

Our Holy Week encounter with suffering is more than a remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is a call to be there wherever the Body of Christ is suffering and crucified. Perhaps it will be a bedside vigil or providing prayerful support during a troubled labor. Perhaps it will take us to the scene of an accident or the place of tragedy. Our encounter with the crucified Body of Christ in all who suffer exposes our powerlessness and reveals we are unable to fix it. We can, however, still be present – even when it brings us to our knees in tears. In those moments, we will be there when they crucify our Lord. In those moments, we will discover that we are one with all who suffer – even if presence is all we have to offer.

Invitation to Prayer

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

When he was crushed by the weight of the cross,

When he was nailed to a tree,

When he was laid in the tomb?

 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

In the violence and terror of war,

In the neighborhoods victimized by violence,

In the prison cells where both the guilty and the innocent suffer?

 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With those desperate and broken at the border,

With those assaulted, trafficked, and tortured,

With those crippled by the debilitating effects of trauma?

 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Whenever the crucified Body of Christ suffers,

Wherever the crucified Body of Christ suffers,

However the crucified Body of Christ suffers? 

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Note

¹ I’m grateful to the Reverend Jacqui Lewis for awakening me to our intimate connection with the crucified Body of Christ in all who suffer. For more on her heart and wisdom, visit www.jacquilewis.com.