From The Way of the Cross
Three o’clock on a grey afternoon. Outside, a steady drizzle of rain; inside the church, an odd motley of people.
A smartly dressed woman, side by side with one who is shabby and threadbare. A boy and girl who appear to be in love. A very old man, so bowed that he is permanently in an attitude of adoration. A stalwart young soldier whose polished buttons glitter like gems in the candlelight. A couple of students, shabbily but elegantly dressed in corduroys and bright scarves, rubbing shoulders with a gaunt, round-shouldered man who looks like a tramp. A sprinkle of small children. And behind them all, as if he felt himself to be the modern Publican, though there is no reason why he should, a thickset, square-shouldered business man. And a few seconds before the priest, in come a couple of rather flustered little nuns, like birds shaking the rain off their black feathers.
What a diversity of places these people must have come from – luxury flats, tenements, small boardinghouses, institutions, barracks, studios, colleges, doss houses, schools, offices, convents. What sharp contrast there must be between their different lives and circumstances! But they seem to be strangely at one here, gathered round a crude colored picture on the wall of the church, “The First Station of the Cross,” and it seems to come naturally to them to join together in the same prayer:
We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee.
Because by thy Holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.
The tender rhythmic prayer that has been on the lips of men all through the ages is repeated fourteen times as they move slowly around the church, following the priest from station to station, until they reach the last of all, “Jesus Laid in the Tomb.”
An onlooker – one, that is, who was uninitiated – would be puzzled. In between the repeated ejaculations, he would hear the priest reading meditations – at least he would hear the drone of his voice, but perhaps not what he said, as he would probably read without expression or punctuation. Even if he did hear the words, they would hardly be likely to enlighten him, for the meditations would very probably be couched in the most extravagant terms of sentimental piety and seem to have no relationship to the stark reality of the human suffering which they attempted to describe. Neither would the picture on the wall help him to understand what it is that brings such incongruous, oddly assorted people together in this seemingly formal and curious devotion. As likely as not, the picture would be uninspiring, crude, and without any aesthetic value.
If this onlooker asked one of the people there to enlighten him, she would probably be surprised that he should expect the picture to attempt either aesthetic beauty or to represent the physical aspects of the Passion of Christ realistically. She might explain that the church does not ask for pictures at all, but simply for fourteen numbered crosses marking fourteen incidents on the way to Calvary, showing not so much the exterior incidents of the Passion as their inward meaning. She might add, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the church tolerates the pictures that we use just as a mother tolerates the crude and almost symbolic pictures that the older members of the family draw for the younger, knowing that the little children will read into them just those things which are already in their own hearts.
The Stations of the Cross are not given to us only to remind us of the historical Passion of Christ, but to show us what is happening now, and happening to each one of us. Christ did not become man only to lead his own short life on Earth – unimaginable mercy though that would have been – but to live each of our lives. He did not choose his Passion only to suffer it in his own human nature – tremendous though that would have been – but in order to suffer it in the suffering of each one of his members through all ages, until the end of time.
Most of Christ’s Earthly life was hidden. He was hidden in his mother’s womb, he was hidden in Egypt and in Nazareth. During his public life he was hidden often, when he fled into “a mountain to pray.” During the forty days of his risen life, again and again he disappeared and hid himself from men. Today he is hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, in Heaven, and in his mystical body on Earth.
But in his Passion he was exposed, made public property to the whole of mankind. The last time he went up into a mountain to pray, it was to pray out loud in a voice that would echo down the ages, ringing in the ears of mankind forever. It was to be stripped naked before the whole world forever, not only in body but in mind and soul to reveal not only the height and the depth and the breadth of his love for men but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity.
All his secrets were out. Every detail of his Passion revealed something more of his character as man – not only his heroism and his majesty but his human necessities, and the human limitations which he deliberately adopted as part of his plan of love in order to be able to indwell us as we are, with our limitations and psychological as well as physical necessities and interdependence on one another. He was not only simulating our humanness outwardly but feeling as we feel; not only feeling his own grief, fear, compassion, need of sympathy, and so on, as man, but ours; not only knowing every nerve and fiber of his own love for us, but that of each one of us for one another.
The Passion of Christ was an experience which included in itself every experience, except sin, of every member of the human race. If one may say this with reverence, the fourteen incidents of the Stations of the Cross show not only the suffering but the psychology of Christ. Above all they show, in detail, his way of transforming suffering by love. He shows us, step by step, how that plan of love can be carried out by men, women, and children today, both alone in the loneliness of their individual lives and together in communion with one another.
Different though each human being is from every other, uniquely his own though each one’s experience is, there are certain inevitable experiences which are common to all men and from which none can escape. One of these is death. Another is love. Every human being alive is on the road to death. Everyone is capable of love for someone, even if it is only for himself, and the price of love, perhaps particularly of self-love, is suffering. But the power of love, and this does not apply to self-love, is to transform suffering, to heal its inevitable wounds.
Now it is easier to understand what it is that brings the incongruous motley of people together to “make the Way of the Cross.” Each one meets himself on the Via Crucis, which is the road through death to life. In Christ he finds the meaning of his own suffering, the power of his own capacity for love. He finds the explanation of himself in Our Lady, too, the mother of Christ in whose soul he is formed perfectly, as he was once formed perfectly in her body. And in those others, too, who are taking part in the Passion of the Son of Man – Simon of Cyrene, Magdalen and John, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem, the good thief, the centurion, the man who lent his tomb, the scattered apostles who crept back and ran to the empty tomb on the morning of resurrection. Those in whom, through grace and mercy, Christ is being formed, and growing from the darkness of the buried seed to his full flowering.
Yes, in the Stations of the Cross he who has the eye of faith sees the story of Christ’s historical Passion – his own individual story – and the story of the suffering world, in which Christ’s Passion goes on through time; the way of the cross which, though it leads to the tomb and the dark sleep of death, leads on beyond it to the waking morning of resurrection and the everlasting springtime of life.
For us, here and now, there is more immediate and more practical meaning in those fourteen incidents on the way to Calvary. It is a showing not simply of the way of sorrows which we are all destined to walk, if we will or not, but of the way of love which heals sorrow, and which we all can take if we walk in the footsteps Christ has marked out for us, and not only imitate him but identify ourselves with him. The stations show us how each one can lighten the heavy cross that is laid upon the bent back of the whole human race now, how each one in the power of Christ’s love can sweeten his own suffering and that of those who are dear to him.
This is why the prayer, “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy Holy Cross, thou hast redeemed the world,” echoes down the centuries, not in tones of fear and reluctance but as a cry of welcome, a tender cry, in the tones of a lover’s greeting, to him whom every man must meet on the way of sorrows, changed for him to the way of love.