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Were You There?

Lifting the thin wafer, the man suspends it a moment before the eyes of those gathered before him. The crack as it’s split in half breaks a silence brewed for centuries—a silence of meditation and memory, its vintage richer every year, bitter and sweet together. Following the crack come the words: “There arose in Egypt a Pharaoh who knew not of the good deeds that Joseph had done for that country . . .” And then, from the end of the table, the child’s shy question: “Ma nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot—Why is this night different from all other nights?” The rest of the Passover guests speak the age-old response. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and God brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And if God had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be subjugated to Pharaoh in Egypt. Even if we were all old and wise and learned in Torah, we would still be commanded to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. And the more we talk about the Exodus from Egypt, the more praiseworthy we are.”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there?

Narrative and memory have always formed the identity of God’s people. A retelling of the Exodus story frames the Passover Seder, as it does so many Old Testament prayers and psalms, because this narrative experience shapes the memory and thus the identity of its participants. All narrative is a form of experience: it draws its hearers into its world so that they share the experiences of its characters, vicariously yet really engaging their own expectations, emotions, and efforts to understand. Thus narrative, along with all other experiences, shapes us—though not, as determinists or behaviorists would affirm, like pebbles helplessly and arbitrarily tumbled through a creek bed. We are not pebbles, but persons, gifted with a memory that mediates our experience and allows us, through interpretation, to gently direct its hammer-smacks and chisel-strikes. We are not pebbles, but poets, who distill life’s blows and blessings into art. The continual reliving of the story of deliverance forms God’s people into those who, because they have experienced deliverance once, await it again.

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there?
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree? Were you there?

Lifting the thin wafer, the man suspends it a moment before the eyes of those gathered before him. The crack as it’s split in half breaks a silence brewed for centuries—a silence of meditation and memory, its vintage richer every year, bitter and sweet together. Following the crack come His words: “This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me . . .” The rest of those gathered are confused. The words are new, bursting the wineskins of their memories, articulating something horrible. They begin to question one another, which of them it could be who will commit the betrayal just described.

Were you there when they pierced Him in the side? Were you there?
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side? Were you there?

Yet the narrative and memory do not only provide vicarious experience. Like the photo albums and stories by which a mother tells her children of their early years, the narratives of our histories can also give awareness of experiences we have had but not on our own remembered. This, too, identifies us. “And if God had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be subjugated to Pharaoh in Egypt”: the words of the Passover’s Haggadah testify that, in a real sense, each of the Jewish people was personally delivered out of Egypt. The same holds true for the Christian’s deliverance. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows . . . He was wounded for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed”—so Isaiah underscores the truth of our presence at the Lord’s crucifixion (Isaiah 53:4-5). As the narrative is told, we may recognize ourselves in each of its characters. We are Judas who betrayed, the disciples who fled, Pilate who washed his hands, the crowd who shouted murder, the sinners whose sins tied God to a tree.

Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble . . .

Lifting the thin wafer, the man suspends it a moment before the eyes of those gathered before him. Then come words—brief words of blessing, a living echo of what they thought was dead. The crack as it’s split in half breaks a silence brewed for three long days—a silence of meditation and memory, more bitter than sweet. Their eyes are opened, and they recognize Him. And then He vanishes from their sight. He was known to them at Emmaus in the breaking of the bread.

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb? Were you there?
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb? Were you there?

But narrative and memory do more: they provide us with vicarious experience, they remind us of past experience—and they also open new possibilities for present experience and re-formed identities. At the crucifixion, we were the betrayers and mockers; but now, we are called upon to enter the narrative in a new way. Astonishingly, we who condemned Christ are called to be like Him, to “know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, being conformed to His death,” that, somehow, we too “may attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). The narrative remembered allows us to enter in new ways, to become new characters, new people.

Were you there when He rose up from the dead? Were you there?
Were you there when He rose up from the dead? Were you there?

Lifting the thin wafer, the man suspends it a moment before the eyes of those gathered before him. The crack as it’s split in half breaks a silence brewed for centuries—a silence of meditation and memory, its vintage richer every year, bitter and sweet together. Following the crack come the words: “The Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ . . . For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” This Easter Sunday, as every Sunday, we hear, we sip, we taste; we claim the story of the Holy Week as our own, and we tell it again and again, so that, in time, we will recognize its great fulfillment.

Oh! Sometimes I feel like shouting glory, glory, glory . . .

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