When They Nailed Him to the Tree

by Andrea Kolber


“Were you there, when they nailed him to the tree?

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?

Wooo, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble

Were you there, when they crucified my Lord?" 

- William Eleazer Barton, Old Plantation Hymns (1899)

Growing up this hymn was a favorite of mine, particularly at Maundy Thursday and Good Friday mass. Interestingly, at the time I didn't realize that this song was most likely composed by African- American slaves. Although, as I chew on this idea of suffering it makes so much sense. 

I was raised Catholic and even at the tender age of 8, I could feel the gravity of Holy Week. There was a surprising amount of mystery and longing wrapped up in those masses. It was always simple, and yet profound for me.

Now as an adult and a non-denominational Christian, sometimes I miss the liturgy of my youth. Don’t get me wrong, there are reasons I chose to leave the Catholic Church. Yet, I can’t help but notice that we tend to over compensate when we try to correct something.

For example, how many times has an over-zealous driver hit a slick patch in snow, and rather than return to center, they end up in a ditch? It takes a lot of experience and awareness to keep a car in the middle of the road.

Like drivers who end up in the ditch, I have wondered at times whether I have done this in my own journey.

The answer of course, is yes. As each of us have, because this is our nature.

We are creatures of security, and what feels more secure than the exact opposite of what we believe to be wrong?  While I’m convinced that faith in God is always sure, I am just as convinced in our imperfections as people. So as long as the church is facilitated by people, it seems worth considering that we may go to extremes or miss something.  

So how does any of this connect to Holy Week?

In my experience and perhaps at times in the church, we like to (or want to) skip over suffering and process and get to the "answer." We long to go from one extreme to the other.

Because wouldn’t it be nice if we could step around the messy part, and just get to the healing?

Isn’t that what we always want? Just to be whole.

But what if we can incorporate the beauty of both? What if because of suffering we can really value goodness?

What if the journey leading to the cross, really causes us to value the freedom we gain because of the Resurrection?

While I don’t see myself becoming a Catholic again, I appreciate my experiences growing up in a new way. I see the value in honoring and identifying with the pain that Jesus experienced---for us. When we take time to meditate on the cost of the cross, we find this: our freedom was not cheap.

This is a model for understanding pain. Our suffering is not cheap either. It is seen and valued too. 

So as I think upon my Jesus on the cross, I am humbled that he modeled process for me in this most poignant way. By his very own suffering and death, he is leading us to beauty and freedom. He did not skip over the suffering, in fact he asks that we remember this beautiful sacrifice when we take the Lord's supper. 

These memories cause me to sit in the haunting messiness of Holy week and yearn for Sunday morning. And that is the value of identifying with Jesus's suffering, it causes us to know how much the cross mattered. But make no mistake; Sunday's coming. He did not stay in the grave, because from the suffering he redeems and raises up new life.

"...and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair." Isaiah 61:3a