by M. Shawn Copeland

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Hebrews 4:14-16 | John 18:1-19:42

Let us kneel in love and thanksgiving … for the wondrous love of God

Today, the suffering, violence and brutality that we human beings inflict on one another are caught up in the memorial of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. God in human flesh embraces his fate and takes up the cross for love of us.

Enslaved Africans in the United States knew in their flesh what it meant to suffer. They never mitigated the horror, but they recognized their own suffering in Jesus’ torture and death. Forbidden by law and custom to learn to read and write, these humble women and men listened with open hearts and keen ears to the sermons that treated the passion and death of Jesus. Their oppression gave them an epistemological privilege — they understood his vulnerability and pain, they grasped his love. They took comfort from his loving solidarity and, in return, sought to comfort him. They poured out their love in songs and moans that transcended the boundaries of time and space. As Jesus stood with them in their sufferings, they would stand with Jesus in his.

jesus-christ-crucifixion-150

Here is one of the most famous of these great songs of sorrow:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?

In this spiritual, the enslaved people comment on each act in the crucifixion of Jesus and name its effects in the natural world (the sun refused to shine), and in the heart and body of the believer (it causes me to tremble). Through the repeated inquiry, “Were you there?”, they invite each of us to stand at Golgotha, to admit our collusion in its evil. John Lovell, the foremost historian of the Negro or African-American spiritual, writes that in these lyrics, the makers of the spiritual show us a grave and “great wrong [being] committed under the eyes of frightened or uncaring people.” The crucifixion of this innocent man is an offense against the whole of humanity. We all share in the guilt, “not so much for what we do, as what we allow to happen.”

On this Good Friday, let us kneel before the broken, crucified body of Jesus. Let us kneel before the disappeared and murdered bodies of thousands of peasants, workers, vowed religious sisters and brothers, ministers and priests in Latin America; the raped and abused bodies of young boys and girls and women who have survived sexual assault by clergy and church workers; the torn bodies of prostitutes forced to trade themselves for survival; the rejected bodies of gays and lesbians; the swollen bodies of children dying in hunger; the scarred and bruised bodies of women, men and children suffering with AIDS; the despised bodies of red and brown and black and yellow women and men. To kneel before these bodies is a first step in grasping our collusion in their suffering and death; it is a first step in grasping the absolute gratuitous love of the crucified Jesus. Let us kneel in love and thanksgiving for the wondrous love of God.

* Quotations from Black Song: The Forge and the Flame – How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out, by John Lovell, 1972.

This reflection was written by M. Shawn Copeland for the Pax Christi USA Lenten reflection booklet for 2003, To Live the Passion and Compassion of Jesus: Reflections for Lent 2003.

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