I didn’t grow up in the church; our family only went occasionally, usually on Easter, to appease my grandmother. But even with such sporadic exposure to Christian hymnody as a child, one simple, haunting strain stayed with me:
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? 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?
The exact origins of the song are uncertain. It was first sung by African slaves, becoming part of a rich and enduring African-American spiritual tradition.
Were you there? The obvious literal answer would be “no.” But that would miss the point. The song summons us to an act of imagination, in order to participate in its movement, verse by verse, from crucifixion to burial to resurrection. Like many of the psalms of lament, the hymn leads us through sorrow into hope.
So, who was there? Matthew gives us this:
Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Matt 27:55-56, NIV)
Mark has a similar note:
Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. (Mark 15:40-41, NIV)
“Salome” was probably the name of the mother of James and John, Zebedee’s sons, and we have met her before (Matt 20:20-21). Overall, however, we know little about these women from the gospels themselves. No matter. In the story, the important facts seem to be these:
- They were there;
- They were women;
- There were many of them.
Despite the bluster and bravado of Peter and the rest of the Twelve (Matt 26:31-35), despite their promises of loyalty, there is no mention of them being present at the crucifixion. The single exception is one reference to “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved” (traditionally identified as John) in John 19:25-27, who is standing close enough to the cross to receive verbal instructions. But even this is in the context of the specific mention of four women, including Mary the mother of Jesus.
Many of the Jesus’ most loyal disciples, therefore, were women. Some had traveled with him the long distance from Galilee, providing for the needs of his itinerant ministry. And they continued to demonstrate their caring faithfulness by being present in Jesus’ darkest hour.
Were you there? I tremble, not only at the specter of the cross, but at the implications of the question itself. The ones that we would have expected to be there weren’t. One sold him out and later committed suicide; eleven ran off into the night. Only one returned.
What would I have done?
The faithful were the ones in the background, the ones who went unnoticed, whose continuing ministry generally went unheralded. In a traditional patriarchal culture, this part of the gospel narrative might well have been particularly sobering.
May faithfulness always be celebrated and never taken for granted. And may we remember, as we look toward Easter, that there’s always more room at the foot of the cross.