I wonder if Alvin Lee of Ten Years After fame knows he is the reason I memorized the Stations of the Cross. Probably not. I should sit down and write him a thank you note; it would only be about 40 years late. Better late than never, right?
I am certain this is the only time in the history of all things written that the amazing and legendary face-melting blues guitarist Alvin Lee might ever see his name in the same sentence with the Stations of the Cross. When he was shredding his iconic 20-minute version of I’m Going Home at Woodstock in 1969, he could have never guessed that he was playing a role in the spiritual awakening of a little teenager in Minnesota.
In other words, God is so big he can use the most unlikely of circumstances to reach his children.
First, a little background for non-Catholic readers. The Stations of the Cross are found primarily in Roman Catholic churches and are designed to help the faithful make a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer through meditating upon the chief scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death. These devotions find their roots in the experiences of the earliest pilgrims to Jerusalem, who walked the “Via Dolorosa” as part of their spiritual pilgrimage. As Christianity spread during the Middle Ages however, it became impossible for pilgrims to make this journey, and a “spiritual” Way of the Cross became increasingly popular in churches throughout Christendom.
Some of the most powerful religious art over the last thousand years or so features the Stations in a variety of mediums; paintings, frescoes, wall reliefs, stained glass, and sculptures. These artistic expressions were a means of teaching the congregation the events of Good Friday; remember that commoners didn’t have Bibles like we do today and many congregants couldn’t read anyway. The Stations were also a way of teaching people how to pray as they entered in to Christ’s humanity, suffering, and sacrificial death. The fourteen Stations depict the following scenes of Christ’s sufferings and death.
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus is given his cross
- Jesus falls the first time
- Jesus meets His mother
- Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
- Jesus falls the second time
- Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls the third time
- Jesus is stripped of His garments
- Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus’ body is removed from the cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense
It’s only in recent years that a 15th Station has been added displaying the resurrection of Christ. [Side note that has nothing to do with this story: I find it ironic that Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Super Star was met with so much resistance from mainline denominations in the 1970’s because the rock opera ended before Jesus rose from the tomb, when it took the church a millennium to complete the Stations of the Cross with the Easter scene.]
Being raised Lutheran I had very little knowledge about the Stations of the Cross. They were not included in my church building. While we were taught Bible facts in Sunday School, we didn’t physically take part in the Stations of the Cross devotion like my Catholic friends did during Lent.
So back to the Alvin Lee story. Just who is this Alvin Lee, you may be asking if you are too young or too respectable to have been following Woodstock rock in the 70’s. Think Kenny Wayne Shepherd or Jonny Lang times 10. Alvin Lee was once tagged by rock critics as “the fastest guitar player on earth” and it stuck. Brave and experimental with his 335 Gibson 958, he set “no limit” with his pioneer speed style.
Anyway, it’s 1971 and Alvin Lee and Ten Years After are coming to town and I’ve got tickets. We all have tickets. We are 16 years old and juniors in high school. We are so excited. We can’t wait! There’s only one teensy glitch. When my friend Diane and I tell our folks we have tickets for a week from Friday, we are met with a unanimous, “Oh no, definitely not! That’s Good Friday. We don’t go to rock concerts on Good Friday. We go to church on Good Friday. It is a somber day, not a day for the blues!”
But Maawwmmmmm, we have tickets. We have to go!”
“Absolutly not! Out of the question! Not on Good Friday.”
“But Maawwmmmm! We bought the tickets already. We have plans. All our friends are going. We have to go!”
“I don’t think so, you can go another time.”
“But Maawwmmmm. There IS no other time. It’s ALVIN LEE! What can we do? How can we sway the court? We’ll do anything! We’ll go to church every day all through Holy Week if we can just please skip Good Friday. Please, please, please????
A long silence. Then, “Every day? You’ll go to church every day?”
“Yes, Yes, Yes!!! Every day!! We’ll do anything!!”
Negotiations complete. Compromise reached. Deal sealed. It was agreed Diane and I would go to mass every day during Holy Week. In return we gained permission to go see the most amazing, the one and only Alvin Lee & Ten Years After on Good Friday! We were psyched!!!
When Friday came we went to the concert and had a great time — didn’t we? Funny thing, I can’t remember many of the details. I do remember thinking it was sooo worth it just to be able to see the astonishing Alvin Lee in concert, but 40 years later I can’t recall the simplest details of the evening. I’m sure it was loud and adrenalin fueled and awesome, but I can’t really pull it into focus. I can’t picture who went with us – I know it was Diane and I, but beyond that I really can’t remember for sure. I can’t really be certain where the concert was – the St. Paul Civic Center or Minneapolis Auditorium (I am certain it wasn’t the Labor Temple like I found on the internet when trying to jog my memory through google research – btw, this started out to be a piece on how you can’t believe everything you read on the internet but that seemed a little too obvious). I can’t remember who drove or if we got home on time. I can’t remember if Ten Years After had a warm up band or if they were the warm up act for another band. I can’t remember if they played our favorites songs like Love Like a Man, Sweet Little Sixteen, Slow Blues in C, or I’m Going Home, featuring Alvin’s blisteringly searing lead licks like non other.
Now 40 years later, what I DO remember are the hoops Diane and I had to jump through for our moms to let us go to a rock concert on Good Friday; they sent a clear message what was to be important and lasting in life.
I remember carving out time every day that week to go to church with Diane; lesser obligations – like work and school – ended up on the back burner.
And I do remember walking the Stations of the Cross around the interior of the nearly century old St. Hubert’s Catholic Church.
I remember gazing upon the little relief wall sculptures with aqua blue backgrounds hanging high between stained glass windows depicting the events that crystallize the very essence of Good Friday.
I remember thinking this was a very new way for me to experience a very old story.
I remember feeling a still small stirring in my heart as I gazed upon those images day after day.
I remember realizing that the events of Good Friday must have been really important to have inspired millions of people throughout history to pour so much time, talent, and dedication into keeping that day in history fresh in minds of generations to follow.
It’s funny how God uses the most unlikely events to reach his children. I think sometimes church-raised kids end up a little “inoculated with the Gospel.” But that Holy Week I remember the story of Good Friday coming to life for me.
And for that, I have our amazing moms – Darlene and Elaine – and of course the legendary Alvin Lee and Ten Years After to thank from the bottom of my heart.