From Almost Catholic
“Oh dear, it’s very difficult being a Catholic.”
“Does it make much difference to you?”
“Of course. All the time.”
“Well, I can’t say I’ve noticed it. Are you
struggling against temptation? You don’t seem
much more virtuous than me.”
“I’m very, very much wickeder.”
(Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited)
One of the most tenacious of Catholic devotions, the Stations of the Cross are usually represented as a series of fourteen pictures or sculptures hanging at eye level that represent the scenes of Jesus’s final hours, from his condemnation by Pilate to the placing of his body in the tomb. Walking them in a church or outdoors or (God, please, one day) in Jerusalem on the path that Jesus himself walked, the Stations are our physical way of following Christ to Calvary. Doing them online will never quite replicate the same experience, although you’ll find several places to do them there too.
Recognizing the Stations is an ancient devotion that was first organized into a spiritual practice in the fourteenth century by the Franciscans who became official custodians of the holy sites in the Holy Land. In the spirit of Saint Francis, the Stations are a way to – sometimes literally and certainly spiritually – follow in the steps of Christ. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said to his disciples. That’s precisely what the original Stations on the streets of Jerusalem purport to do. The first station, for example, begins in the courtyard of what is today, el-Omariye College, where Pilate’s Praetorium and the Roman garrison once stood. It is there that Jesus was condemned to death by Pilate. At the site of other stations, the Franciscans have built chapels and memorials. Station Five, for instance, remembers when and where Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus; the physical spot is at the beginning of Market Road, which leads into Jerusalem. A small Franciscan chapel sits on this spot today. Stations Ten through Fourteen are actually located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The great church now occupies the space that once included Golgotha (another name for Calvary) as well as the tomb where Jesus was buried.
The traditional ordering of the fourteen scenes follows what scripture and tradition combine to say happened to Jesus on the way to Calvary (an asterisk indicates tradition rather than a biblical source for that stage):
- Jesus is condemned to death.
- Jesus receives the cross.
- Jesus falls for the first time.*
- Jesus sees his mother.*
- Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross.
- Veronica wipes Jesus’s face with her veil.*
- Jesus falls for the second time.*
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
- Jesus falls for the third time.*
- Jesus is stripped of his garments.
- Jesus is nailed to the cross.
- Jesus dies.
- Jesus’s body is removed from the cross.* (Imagined in Michelangelo’s Pietà I)
- Jesus is laid in the tomb.
Walking, remembering, and praying at each station is an exercise in humility and a corrective for reorienting the body and spirit to the true meaning of life. The Stations can be almost ubiquitous in Catholic churches, but that doesn’t mean they are to be observed glibly. Part of doing them correctly is feeling the events deeply. Sorrow is a Catholic emotion, and replicating Christ’s sorrow and that of his mother, Mary, is part of walking the Stations well. And African American spiritual understood the importance of following the Stations: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”
Most of us walk them in places other than Jerusalem. Find yourself a crucifix – preferably made of wood – or a rosary with a wooden crucifix, and walk them. Go to a church or space the fourteen Stations in your own backyard. Some of the great cathedrals in the world, such as Saint Patrick’s in New York City or Santa Croce in Florence or Westminster Cathedral in London, offer the fourteen Stations spaced throughout their naves. Other churches have created indigenous versions, showing how the way of Jesus is for all people. In Lodwar Cathedral in Kenya, for instance, the Stations were recently painted to reflect an African setting. The faces, clothing, and places are authentically Kenyan. Pilate is portrayed as a local chief in traditional African dress rather than as a Roman. Even the cross of Christ looks different – like the branch of an African tree.
I walk the Stations in snowshoes on the hillside behind my house in Vermont, most often at dusk. The advent of long nights is, for me, spiritually nourishing. Old logging trails and stone walls have become for me paths and chapels. The Stations are ideally represented pictorially, but I don’t have that in my woods, and so I carry a devotional book with images of each of the fourteen. I walk them with book in hand.
Here is my closing prayer:
Jesus, your life, passion, and death united Earth and Heaven. Your sorrow accomplishes more than I will ever understand.
Change in me all that needs converting, and give me the strength to follow in your steps.
You, Grace, life and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
You may prefer to observe Stations that are explicitly biblical in origin. Six of the original fourteen owe their origin to legend rather than the Gospel accounts. In response to such requests, Pope John Paul II praised the following reordering of the Stations, celebrating them for the first time in 1991. Each is derived directly from the Gospels:
- Jesus agonizes in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 25:36-41).
- Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested (Mark 14:43-46).
- Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71).
- Jesus is denied by Peter (Matthew 26:69-75).
- Jesus is condemned to death by Pilate (Mark 15:1-5, 15).
- Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (John 19:1-3).
- Jesus bears his cross (John 19:6, 15-17).
- Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross (Mark 15:21).
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31).
- Jesus is crucified (Luke 23:33-34).
- Jesus promises paradise to the good thief (Luke 23:39-43).
- Jesus speaks to Mary and the disciple from the cross (John 19:25-27).
- Jesus dies on the cross (Luke 23:44-46).
- Jesus is laid in the tomb (Matthew 27:57-60).
Remembering and honoring Christ’s death in its details is a way to learn as a child learns to walk – to travel in his footsteps and prepare for eternal life.