Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?


English Novelist D. H. Lawrence wandered far from the Congregationalist chapel in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, where he worshipped in his childhood years, but the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover never forgot the hymns he learned in his youth. “They mean more to me almost than the finest poetry,” he wrote later in life, “and they have more permanent value.” Words set to music linger long in the memory. I still remember whole verses of the hymns I sang as a child between sermons on Christ’s Seven Last Words from the Cross, delivered by seven different preachers at the Good Friday services at the Baptist Church. They were always the same sacred songs:  The Old Rugged Cross; Beneath the Cross of Jesus; Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross; and a few other conservative Protestant standards.

This meditation presents a selection of lyrics from great hymns of the Church about Christ’s death on the Cross, ranging from a traditional Greek Orthodox chant sung on Holy Friday to a Christmas carol for kids with an Easter message, recorded a few years back by Go Fish, a contemporary American Christian rock band. You will also find the opening stanzas (and choruses, when applicable) of the 13th century Latin hymn, Stabat Mater, two Crucifixion songs by the “Father of English Hymnody,” Isaac Watts, a hymn by John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, and sacred songs about Christ's redeeming death, associated with sawdust trail revival meetings. As the great 17th century English poet-priest, George Herbert once wrote: “The finenesse which a hymne or psalme affords/Is, when the soul unto the lines accords.”

To accompany these musical texts, describing personal encounters with the Crucified Christ at Golgotha, I’ve chosen images from the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection, presenting a favorite scene in artistic studies of the Passion: The Descent from the Cross. Also known as The Deposition, the subject is taken from Gospel accounts of Christ’s death in Matthew 27:55-61; Mark 15:40-47; Luke 23:50-56; and John 19:38-42. The cast of characters usually includes the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, the Apostle John, Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, but artists felt free to introduce other figures into the crowd at the foot of the Cross, including the art patrons who commissioned the pieces. Rembrandt painted himself, supporting the contorted body of Christ, in The Descent from Cross in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Germany. As you view the art and read the text, ponder the question posed by the African-American spiritual: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

                        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?
       Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?, African-American Spiritual.

                Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
                He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns.
                He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
                He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face.
                The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
                The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.
                We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ.
                Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
      Fifteenth Antiphon at Matins for Great and Holy Friday, Greek Orthodox hymn.

                            At the cross, her station keeping,
                            stood the mournful mother weeping,
                            close to Jesus at the last:
                            Through her soul, of joy bereaved,
                             bowed with anguish, deeply grieved,
                             now at length the sword hath passed.
      Stabat Mater (At the Cross Her Station Keeping), 13th century Latin hymn.

                                Alas! And did my Savior bleed
                                and did my Sovereign die?
                                Would He devote that sacred head
                                for such a worm as I?
                                (Chorus) At the cross, at the cross,
                                where I first saw the light,
                                and the burden of my heart rolled away-
                                it was there by faith I received my sight,
                                and now I am happy all the day.
                                At the Cross by Isaac Watts (1707)

                                 When I survey the wondrous cross
                                 on which the Prince of glory died,
                                 my richest gain I count but loss,
                                 and pour contempt on all my pride
                    When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts (1709)

                                   Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
                                   let me hide myself in Thee;
                                   Let the water and the blood,
                                   from Thy wounded side which flowed,
                                   be of sin, the double cure,
                                   save from wrath and make me pure.
                          Rock of Ages by Augustus M. Toplady (1776)

                                   I saw One hanging on a tree,
                                   in agony and blood,
                                   who fixed His languid eyes on me,
                                   as near His cross I stood.
                                   (Chorus) Oh, can it be, upon a tree,
                                   the Savior died for me?
                                   My soul is thrilled, my heart is filled,
                                   to think He died for me!
                  I Saw One Hanging on a Tree by John Newton (1779)

                                    Jesus, keep me near the cross;
                                    There a precious fountain,
                                    free to all, a healing stream,
                                    flows from Calvary’s mountain.
                                    (Chorus) In the cross, in the cross,
                                    be my glory ever,
                                    till my raptured soul shall find
                                    rest beyond the river.
                   Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross by Fanny Crosby (1869)

                          Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
                          the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land;
                          a home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way,
                           from the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.
                       Beneath the Cross of Jesus by Elizabeth Clephane (1872)

                                 Down at the cross where my Savior died,
                                 down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
                                 there to my sin was the blood applied;
                                 Glory to his name!
                           Down at the Cross by Elisha Albright Hoffman (1878)

                                     Years I spent in vanity and pride,
                                     caring not my Lord was crucified,
                                     knowing not it was for me He died
                                     on Calvary.
                                     (Chorus) Mercy there was great,
                                     and grace was free;
                                     Pardon there was multiplied to me;
                                     There my burdened soul found liberty
                                     at Calvary.
                                 At Calvary by William R. Newell (1895)

                                     There’s salvation full and free at the cross;
                                     Sinner, come and pardoned be at the cross;
                                     Lo, the Savior waiting stands.
                                     See His bleeding side and hands,
                                     He will break sin’s awful bands
                                     At the cross.
                                   At the Cross by William J. Henry (1911)

                                   On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
                                   the emblem of suffering and shame;
                                   and I love that old cross where the dearest and best
                                   for a world of lost sinners was slain.
                                   (Chorus) So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
                                   till my trophies at last I lay down;
                                   I will cling to the old rugged cross,
                                   and exchange it some day for a crown.
                            The Old Rugged Cross by George Bennard (1913)

                                       King of my life, I crown Thee now,
                                       Thine shall the glory be:
                                       Lest I forget Thy thorn-crowned brow,
                                       lead me to Calvary.
                                       (Chorus) Lest I forget Gethsemane,
                                       Lest I forget Thine agony;
                                       Lest I forget Thy love for me,
                                       Lead me to Calvary.
                           Lead Me to Calvary by Jennie E. Hussey (1921)

                                The cross upon which Jesus died
                                 is a shelter in which we can hide:
                                 And its grace so free is sufficient for me,
                                 And deep is its fountain as wide as the sea
                                 (Chorus) There’s room at the cross for you,
                                 There’s room at the cross for you,
                                 Though millions have come, there’s still room for one;
                                 Yes, there’s room at the cross for you.
                            Room at the Cross for You by Ira F. Stamphill (1946)

                               It’s not just about the manger where the baby laid.
                               It’s not all about the angels who sang for Him that day.
                               It’s not just about the shepherds or the bright and shining star.
                               It’s not all about the wise men who traveled from afar.
                               (Chorus) It’s about the cross.
                               It’s about my sin.
                               It’s about how Jesus came to be born once,
                               so that we could be born again.
                               It’s about the stone
                               That was rolled away,
                               so that you and I could have real life someday.
                               It’s about the cross.
                              It’s About the Cross by Jamison J. Statema (2006)