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Following Jesus

What Is the Easter Story?

March 25, 2016 by

I invited a co-worker to the Harlem Bruderhof House this week for an Easter program and she asked me, “What is the Easter story, actually?” I was glad for the chance to explain, because Easter is the central message of my faith and the most important story ever told. It is the story of how each person can become totally new, filled with peace, hope and love, because Jesus took away all our sins.

Telling the story brought to mind the compelling and stark words of the poem The Crucifixion. This epic work by the Harlem Renaissance poet James Weldon Johnson was set to music by one of our church members and is often sung in the Bruderhof during Holy Week. This year, the youth group here in Harlem practiced it – very apropos given our location in the neighborhood where Johnson wrote the poem in 1927.

On this Good Friday, I’ve excerpted some of The Crucifixion. Many times, Johnson simply re-uses words from the Gospel, but the simplicity of his poetic structure somehow struck me anew this year, a vivid capturing of the agony of that day.

Jesus, my burdened Jesus,
Praying in the dark of the Garden –
The Garden of Gethsemane.
Saying: Father,
Oh, Father,
This bitter cup,
This bitter cup,
Let it pass from me.

Here, the anger of the people, stirred to the point of rioting by their religious leaders, comes out bluntly:

But they cried out, saying:
Crucify him! –
Crucify him! –
Crucify him! –
His blood be on our heads.
And they beat my loving Jesus,
They spit on my precious Jesus;
They dressed him up in a purple robe,
They put a crown of thorns upon his head,
And they pressed it down –
Oh, they pressed it down –
And they mocked my sweet King Jesus.

Finally, mocked and beaten, Jesus is nailed to the cross, and we respond with Johnson:

Oh, I tremble, yes, I tremble,
It causes me to tremble, tremble,
When I think how Jesus died;
Died on the steeps of Calvary,
How Jesus died for sinners,
Sinners like you and me.

Yes, he died. But then he rose! By willingly dying for us, offering his life to end suffering and human need, he set us free: sinners like you and me. That’s the Easter story.

Illustration from the first edition of God’s Trombones of Christ carrying the cross
Illustration from the first edition of God's Trombones

The Crucifixion is one of the poems in the book God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927. The full text can be read here.


Rachel Barth lives at the Harlem House community in New York City.

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