“Sometimes it causes me to tremble” is a line from the refrain of the well-known spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The trembling comes upon the witness to Jesus’ crucifixion, and like many hymns and spirituals puts the singer or hearer in the role of a witness to the event.
This is a particularly modern approach, an existential one we might say, where the “religious affections,” to use Jonathan Edwards’ term, are profoundly moved by contemplating Jesus on the cross.
But there is another parallel tradition as ancient as the New Testament that sees in the death of Jesus not merely a profoundly agonizing event which moves the witnesses, then and now, but also as an event that changes the whole world, even the natural world.
In theology talk we would call the Cross of Jesus a “cosmic and eschatological” event, meaning that its implications were both universal in scope and ultimate in time.
We see some of this imagery already in, for example, the Gospel of Mark, our earliest Gospel, where he describes the earth darkening at the hour of the crucifixion, and the veil of the temple being torn in two. (Mark 15:33 and 38)
Matthew’s account says even more of this kind of thing: “The earth shook and the rocks were split.” (Matt. 57: 21b) Luke adds that “the sun’s light failed.” (Luke 23:45)
P. T. Forsyth once got at the cosmic implications of the Cross by saying that the very atomic structure of the universe was changed by this event. Whether he meant this as science or as a metaphor, either way it points to the vast repercussions of the moment when “They crucified my Lord.”
Earlier generations were more able to see in such an event, not the merely personal and individual, where our time seems to want to safely relegate all religious phenomena, but the cosmic.
Here’s an example of such a cosmic view from Frances Quarles, a Seventeenth Century poet, which refers to a trembling that shook not just the believer, but the earth itself. He doesn’t ignore the personal. On the contrary, he asks, if these senseless things can tremble so, “Shall I not melt one poor drop to see my Saviour die?”