Station 7: Jesus Dies on the Cross

March 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

james_middleton_ jesus_dies_on_the_cross_stationGrowing up, my mom, my brothers and I went to a Stations of the Cross
service each Wednesday in Lent. There was a short service and then a
soup supper in the parish hall.

What I remember most from all those Wednesday nights twenty years ago
is a verse from a song we sang each week: “Were you there when they
nailed Him to the tree? Were you there when they nailed Him to the
tree? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you
there when they nailed Him to the tree?”

Can I tell you that as a young teenager this song, particularly this
verse, made me laugh?

“No”, I whisper-giggled to whoever would listen to me in our pew, “I
was not there when Jesus was nailed to the tree.” I’m trying to admit
my honest childhood reaction to this sad song and wondering why this
song is my Lenten earworm now. Since I cannot get this pleading,
preposterous song out of my head, I’ve tried to turn this song into my
prayer this Lent. What I’m starting to see is that this simple song
sticks with me because it pushes my understanding of who Jesus is and
what his crucifixion means.

It can be easy to miss the passion in the Passion. Those of us who
grew up Christian have heard about Jesus’ death many times before, but
this song make me see the old story in a new way. The substitution of
the word “tree” for “cross” changes the story for me. I see soldiers
nailing Jesus to a dirty tree, rough with bark and wilting leaves.
This horrible unvarnished tree, sticky with sap and splinters, is far
different from any cross I’ve ever seen. History has smoothed out
Jesus’ story. The “tree” from “Where You There” guides me to see the
Passion in a new way. Sometimes it causes me to tremble.

“Were You There” is the first African-American spiritual I’d ever
heard. I don’t know how it landed in our Catholic hymnal in suburban
Pennsylvania, but I’m sure glad it did. This song was so entirely
different from the other music we sang in church. Part of my giggling
obsession with this hymn must come from the thrill of discovering a
new thing. This spiritual draws out tenderness and pain.

Dear Jesus, you stretched out your arms in love and were willingly
nailed to a horrible tree. Help us to understand your story. Give us
the courage to stand with you. Push us to open our arms to others,
even when we tremble. Amen.

– Chris Phillips

§ 2 Responses to Station 7: Jesus Dies on the Cross

  • julia says:

    I have so many similar memories from childhood — songs and rituals I now love and understand that made me groan or laugh. It’s great to remember them.

  • Suzanne Pyrch says:

    This is also one of my favorite hymns. I agree that it bringa the crucifixion home.

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