Rediscovering Catholic Traditions: Stations of the Cross

Jesus on a cross | Photo by Christoph Schmid on Unsplash

The Passion of the Christ moved me to tears. Obviously others at the movie—mainly young people when I went—were also moved. We all left in silence. But the movie was too violent and overly graphic for me. Mel Gibson is a filmmaker, a dramatist. It was the sources he used and his interpretation of Jesus’ sufferings. Other dramas, such as the Passion Plays at Oberammergau or Black Hills, take a different approach.

Personal Passion Play

The four evangelists are the authentic source of Jesus’ last hours. On Good Friday after reading John’s account, we come forward individually and venerate the cross. The choir sings the Reproaches: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” In the liturgies of the Triduum, we remember and participate most perfectly in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

To enter more fully into the liturgy, it helps us to create our own Passion Play, to reenact for ourselves the suffering and death of Jesus. The Way of the Cross devotion allows us—as a group or individually—to become personally involved. As the traditional hymn asks, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” What was it like for Jesus? What does it mean now for us?

“Christian prayer loves to follow the way of the cross in the Savior’s steps,” notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The Stations from the Praetorium to Golgotha and the tomb trace the way of Jesus, who by his holy Cross has redeemed the world” (#2669).

For centuries pilgrims have walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, gratefully retracing the painful steps of Jesus. The Stations help us accept the invitation of Jesus to take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). Christ suffered for us, leaving us “an example that [we] should follow in his footsteps” (1 Peter 2:21). We are not innocent bystanders. It is our story too. For our sins Jesus died.

Death Is Not the End

From grade school on, I have been moved by making the Way of the Cross with others in church. I also like to do it by myself. I can pray at each station as long as I want. I can open myself to what that station means to me and how it applies to my life.

I can identify with Jesus falling under the weight of the cross and struggling to get up again. I relive times when, helpless, I have watched a loved one in pain, as Mary did for Jesus. Like Simon of Cyrene, I have been reluctant to help carry the burden of another. Like Veronica, I have been generously rewarded for a small act of love.

Not all 14 Stations are based in Scripture, but they do touch our human experience and offer a way to enter into the suffering of Jesus. We do not have to be in church. We can meditate on his passion in our own way at home, in the hospital or wherever we are.

St. Leonard of Port Maurice promises what we will gain by praying the Stations: “We will be urged to repay such great love with our own love.”

And in the drama we create, we don’t want to imitate Mel Gibson’s film which gave minimal time to the Resurrection. We can’t neglect the last act, the climax: Jesus rose from the dead! He conquered sin and death. We don’t want to be so absorbed in Good Friday that we forget Easter Sunday.

Stations of the Cross

This devotion spread throughout Western Europe during the Middle Ages, especially after the Crusades had failed to reconquer and hold the city of Jerusalem, the site of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. The number of stations has varied and so have the events commemorated by them.

Franciscan St. Leonard of Port Maurice (1676-1751) is reported to have set up almost 600 sets of Stations of the Cross during his years as a popular preacher in Italy. He also established the Way of the Cross in Rome’s Colosseum. Pope John Paul II began leading the Stations of the Cross from there to a nearby hill on Good Friday. It is now televised internationally.

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