The answer to the question posed by today’s anthem ‘Were you there?’ is a relatively straightforward one: no. We did not, in a physical sense, watch our Blessed Lord and Saviour nailed, strung up and crucified; we did not stand with Blessed Mary as he spoke his final words to her; we did not see the darkening hour, nor watch as the lifeless body was taken down, nor hear stories of temple veils rent or of a centurion making his profession of faith. Clearly, the question calls us - who stand two thousand years on from the day - into a different form of remembrance: to re-member the past into the present. In normal circumstances, Holy Week has rather a lot of this. At its start, we carry our palm crosses in procession, and later on we recall Jesus’s command to love one another by actively washing the feet of present-day disciples. His greatest command (to ‘do this in remembrance of me’) draws us back day after day, week after week, to the summit of our lives as Christians: participation in the Holy Eucharist. Were you there propels us, in a single moment, to the foot of the cross - and we find ourselves trembling at the sheer enormity of it all.
For African Americans, the community from which this song emerged, this re-membering of the cross became the instrument by which some sense could be made of their experience in slavery. To say that the cross is the foundation on which our faith is built can sometimes feel a little academic, but here was a situation where the self-abandonment of God in Christ could speak directly into the oppression and demonisation of an entire race. Thus they re-membered the suffering of Christ, with its inherent promise of God’s presence and future glory. In our day, in disorienting times, we are called to do the same. We remember that God’s self-definition is even more mind-blowing than omnipotence: his taking on of human form leads him to the sheer depravity of the cross, to total and utter isolation. We do not go to Golgotha today for some grand re-enactment, but simply to look at those arms of love, aching and spent, that continue to sustain and uphold the world. Were you there? Lord, I am here. You can listen to this simple, beautiful anthem, in an arrangement by Bob Chilcott, Click here to listen
When I survey the wondrous cross leads us into an even greater focus on the Love ‘so amazing, so divine’ that ‘demands my soul, my life, my all’. Here it is, sung by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge: Click here to listen