Were you there?
A few years ago, that hymn was on the program for Good Friday, but for some reason we did not actually sing it. Maybe twenty people said something to me afterward, by far the most who have ever made comments of that type. It leads me to believe that it is a favorite.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? the song asks. It is poignant, and makes us realize the reality of what we are marking. We all have had crucifixes around us all our lives, and we make the Sign of the Cross every day, but do we turn our attention to what is signified by them? Probably not so much.
Were you there when they nailed him to the tree? leaves no room for euphemistic thinking. The harsh, hurting reality of that moment in the life of Jesus, and of the world, is suddenly front and center in our attentions.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb? brings chills, or more accurately, the coldness of the grave that embraced the flesh of Our Lord. There is no question of the reality, and the grief that accompanies it.
Were you there? No one of us wants it to be the case that no, we weren’t there. Even as dreadful the day was, we want to have been there; we want to go there, to be there, lest this greatest of all great sacrificial gifts be alien to us, be unknown and unexperienced.
Nothing that Jesus did was simply for that time and that place in which He first did it. His discourse on the Beatitudes was not simply for the edification of those there on the Mount with him. His words to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven,” were not meant to be heard only by him. His instruction, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it,” were not to stop at the four walls of the Cenacle that Passover eve. He intended for many, many more people than simply the woman caught in adultery to know that, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now, but from now on, avoid this sin.”
And, yes, that painful day when all the disciples had to choose whether to flee or stay, that day when the sun was covered over with a veil of grief, and the curtain in the temple was rent in two, even that earth-shaking moment was not simply for that moment; it is for us today.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? is not merely a rhetorical question. Christ makes that moment, that experience present and available to you and me when He re-presents in every Mass His own Passion and Death; and in excruciating detail on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. You can be there, because he will be there. Jesus allowed Himself to be placed in that most painful of moments, to make clear that He is with us precisely when we are in pain.
This year, we will sing that song during the Solemn Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. It is but the second portion of the three-part journey through the Paschal Mystery, which begins with the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, and culminates in the Resurrection itself at the Great Vigil during the night of Saturday into Sunday.
These liturgies -- or to be more accurate this liturgy of the Sacred Triduum, for it is one singular liturgical action spread over three days -- makes it possible for you to answer that plaintive question, Were you there? in the affirmative.