36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward.” 37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” 38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.
John 13: 36-38 (NRSV)
Here we are. It is Good Friday. The day we remember our LORD’s crucifixion and death. Isaac Watts said in his hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” for us to see the “sorrow and love flow mingled down” from Jesus’ head, hands, and feet. Elizabeth Clephane’s hymn, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, she also beckoned us to gaze upon the crucified Savior and confess the wonders of Christ’s “redeeming love and [our] unworthiness”. James Montgomery went a step further in his text “Go to Dark Gethsemane” where he wrote for us to hear Jesus’ final words on the cross: “‘It is finished!’ hear him cry”.
However, as Good Friday draws near each year, I think about the African American spiritual: “Calvary”. It is found in The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) at number 96. I cannot tell you exactly when I was introduced to this spiritual, but I can tell you that I developed a deeper appreciation for it on Good Friday 2015, which was the last time I sang it.
I had the opportunity that year to sing with two friends of mine at an early morning Good Friday breakfast. The sun had not risen, yet, and I can distinctly remember going into the fellowship hall at another church in town where this event was taking place. There were several candles around the room to give just enough light for those praying and eating in silence while I sang many Passion hymns out of the hymnal with my friends.
Something else I failed to mention to you: I was depressed. 2015 was one of the lowest points in my life and certainly in my ministry as a church musician. I felt empty, abandoned, sad, angry, hurt, and scared. It took a lot of prayer from dear friends and family members, therapy, and a lot of singing to keep me going.
Yes, you read that correctly: A lot of singing. I sang a lot in my grief that year. Particularly, I found solace in many of the African American spirituals, partly because they came out of a time of oppression. “Calvary” was one of several spirituals I latched on to that year.
“Calvary” comes from the aural tradition and is simple to learn. The congregation sings the refrain and the soloist sings the stanzas. The melody is repeated in both sections and since the congregation sings only five words, it can be memorized quickly. We are called by the soloist to think about Jesus. Then, the singer asks the first question: “Don’t you hear the hammer ringing?” Another question is then asked to the congregation: “Don’t you hear Him calling His Father?” Finally, we are asked the last question: “Don’t you hear Him say, ‘It is finished'”. At the end of every stanza, the soloist states “Surely He died on Calvary” and then the congregation responds “Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Surely He died on Calvary.”
The words are so simple, but not simplistic. They force us to remember not only our Savior’s suffering, but the suffering we inflict on each other. We confront the horrors of the hammer that not only rang that day, but of the hammer the rings today. We encounter the realization that not only Jesus cried out to His Father and said “It is finished”, but also of people whom we have neglected who are crying out for help.
Every time I think about Jesus, surely He died on Calvary.
Don’t you hear the hammer ringing? Surely He died on Calvary.
Don’t you hear Him calling His Father? Surely He died on Calvary.
Don’t you hear Him say, “It is finished?” Surely He died on Calvary.
Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Calvary, Surely He died on Calvary. Amen.
T. Wes Moore
Middle Level, M. Div.
After school, T. Wes hopes to be an ordained Presbyterian minister and work in a local congregation.