Good Friday.21 “Were You There?”
Were you there? Schmaltzy hymn, but good question. “Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?” Of course you weren’t! You hadn’t even been born yet! It was 1991 years ago, today, for goodness’ sake! Unless one of you is The Wandering Jew? Hmmm. I like to think I’d recognize him, (‘cause I’ve read “A Canticle for Leibowitz” three times, in which the Wandering Jew is a main character and precisely described) and I don’t see anyone who looks or acts like that guy, in our ranks today. So, no; of course you weren’t there—which is why that’s really kind of a dumb hymn and not in any Lutheran hymnal.
But it is a useful and fun exercise of the imagination, isn’t it? We’ve all done it. If you were there, maybe if you got a time machine, and could go back, what would it have been like? And most importantly, who would you have been in this greatest story ever told and what would you have been doing?
It takes imagination to answer that question, and few people have been blessed with a more vivid and poetic imagination than the 20th century writer, W.H. Auden. A former vicar sent me a lovely little passage from Auden’s Commonplace Book in which he asks and answers our question like this…
“Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. It seems to me worthwhile asking ourselves who we should have been and what we should have been doing. None of us, I’m certain, will imagine himself as one of the Disciples, cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror. Very few of us are big wheels enough to see ourselves as Pilate, or good churchmen enough to see ourselves as a member of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all-too-familiar sight — three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.”
And wow, as a philosophy major (not one, but two degrees in the silly business, I’m ashamed to admit—a slow learner if ever there was one!) that passage really cuts to the bone. I think it’s brilliant. It seems laconic, not too deep; but an elephant could drown in those shallow waters!
Now, you may think there are no right or wrong answers to the “were you there” question. Auden’s humorous and imaginative portrait could make the casual reader think that. But you’d be wrong if you think that. Because there is a right, in fact, I would wager, only one right answer (and it’s not: “An Alexandrian Jewish philosopher debating the true, the good, and the beautiful with a friend”. Auden is a better, more convinced Christian churchman than he lets on!—well; as convinced as an Anglican can be 🙂
It’s brilliant how Auden eliminates the conventionally sentimental choices one by one with self-deprecating grace and wit. “Disciple” is probably the majority report for most in churches today. Who else would we be? We’re believers, for Christ’s sake! But were you that kind of a disciple? Surely you would not have abandoned him, denied him, and hid out on that dark day like you never knew him? You wouldn’t have sat meekly at the foot of the cross with his mom, comforting her, silently approving the terrible tragedy? You wouldn’t be “cowering in an agony of spiritual despair and physical terror.” You’re made of sterner stuff than that. Why, you attend church even in a pandemic! Nothing depresses or terrorizes you! You’re better than that, better than the Apostles, really, truth be told!
And humble, too! You don’t have grand political aspirations or a narcissism problem like Pilate and his ilk. You’re not a “big wheel” like that. You aspire to something more noble than political, earthly power. And you sure as shootin’ wouldn’t have condemned Jesus to death like Pilate did. Riots, insurrection, crowds storming the capitol would not have phased you, as it did him!
Nor are you a good enough churchman to have been on the Sanhedrin. Here is the kind of stinging put-down disguised as a backhanded compliment of which the English are true masters! You will never be a Senior Pastor or President of Synod. Because you won’t be a company man or play those political games. The “good” churchmen are just playing different power games. They always condemn Jesus to death—Pilate, just in frillier robes. Not your scene…
You would have been like Auden: a sophisticated, Oxford educated, well-read, widely-traveled cosmopolitan—disgusted at the low-rent barbarism of the Romans and the thrill of the crowd over bread, circuses, crosses. You’d have averted your eyes, made a clever remark, and written a poem about it.
The brilliance is how Auden distances us from the scene, makes us cool, disinterested observers, who morally consent to getting rid of anyone like Jesus or Socrates who upsets the world’s apple cart.
So, what’s the right answer? Well… there were two there with Jesus, at his right and left hand in his glory; but only one out of all that crowd who’s promised a place in Paradise by the Lord. That, of course, was the thief, crucified on his right hand. That’s who you really should be! Because…
It’s true—death cannot be avoided; it comes for us all. It’s good though—for, as Jesus says: ‘whoever saves his live will lose it, but whoever loses his life, for Christ’s sake, will save it’. It’s everything beautiful—shines like a star, that hill far away, the Body of Jesus, hanging on the cross. Could there be a more beautiful place than where God lays down his life to save the world?
I’ve visited the place, myself, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. There is a powerful Presence—spooky, magical, moving—that hangs about the place. You can tell Jesus was there, but not anymore. Yet, even such a pilgrimage doesn’t get you there at the right Time. And timing is everything!
You know what does get you there, just in time? Baptism. That’ll do what even an expensive plane ticket and the finest imagination cannot. Although; a life of crime is a prerequisite—like being an Australian. An American recently, at passport control in Sydney airport was asked by the customs official looking through his passport: “Have you committed any crimes?” and the American guy goes, “Gosh, is that still required?” Yes! You have to be a criminal to go on this ride.
Just one, on Golgotha, that day, got into Paradise with Jesus: the criminal, crucified with him. If you were there, you should have been a participant like that guy—not a spectator like the rest; you should be dying with Jesus. Which, ultimately, requires—more than imagination—Faith.
Were you there? Well, St. Paul writes: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?… [We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be done away]… we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” So, Yes. You were there.
In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.