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March 10, 2016, 10:40 AM

The Stations of the Cross Explained

Since Holy Week is fast approaching, and we have already done a “Frequently Asked Questions” insert in the bulletin explaining the origins of the Passover Seder, I thought I would offer some brief history and reflections on the “Stations of the Cross”, which will be our Good Friday noon service.  (Come and invite a friend!)

So what are they?  The Stations of the Cross combine art, literature and movement to symbolically recreate Christ’s walk to the cross.  Except, we do it within the walls of the church building, so that we can join in the “pilgrimage to Jerusalem” and be drawn closer to Jesus as we remember his very real walk to the Cross.

From the time of the first Apostles, Christians have wanted to go to the Holy Land and walk the path that Jesus walked, especially the path to the foot of the cross. Then, when the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 313, his mother, Helena, set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to officially mark and build churches at significant places in Jesus’ life.  Even to this day, pilgrims follow Helena’s journey and worship in the churches she established.   

The earliest diary of a pilgrimage is given by a young woman named Egeria around 394. She writes in detail about the Holy Week liturgies that occurred in sequence at different churches (stations) in Jerusalem as each related to the story of Jesus’ Way of the Cross.  Later on in the 5th century at the monastery of Santo Stefano in Bologna, Italy, a group of connected chapels was constructed by Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, which was intended to represent the more important shrines of Jerusalem, and as best we can tell, served as the basis for later Stations of the Cross.

Over the centuries, many different forms of the Stations of the Cross arose. The official set of stations was finally established in 1731 by Pope Clement XII and consists of 14 scenes:

1. Jesus is condemned to death,
2. Jesus carries his cross,
3. Jesus falls the first time,
4. Jesus meets his mother,
5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross,
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,
7. Jesus falls the second time,
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem,
9. Jesus falls the third time,
10. Jesus' clothes are taken away,
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross,
12. Jesus dies on the cross,
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross, and
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb. 

You may have noticed, reading through the list, that not all of those stations are scriptural—they are certainly based on early tradition—but five are not specifically found in the Bible.  That has led to some variations in the number and selection of scenes.  In 1991, Pope John Paul II introduced a “scriptural stations of the Cross” based completely on the Biblical record.  (This is the version we will use on Good Friday at noon.)  But regardless of which version one uses, the point remains the same: the Stations are a spiritual pilgrimage of prayer and meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, which is why it is especially appropriate for Good Friday during the hours of noon to three when Jesus lay dying on the cross.

I think the Stations of the Cross also help us understand the concept of “sacred space” as well.  We all know there are certain things you are/are not supposed to do in church (though, we all might include different things on our lists).  But the space isn’t sacred because we paint the walls with “holy” paint, or use “sanctified” concrete in the construction.  It is holy because it is a place where we encounter God in Word and Sacrament.  It is holy because we set it apart from the busy-ness of life for prayer and mediation.  It is holy because we find ourselves in this space for many of the most vulnerable moments of our lives: for confession and forgiveness, for baptisms, for weddings and funerals.  And so, when we pray the Stations of the Cross, what we are (maybe unknowingly) doing is joining our vulnerability with Christ’s, and kneeling in prayer there—beneath his cross.

May God continue to bless you all with grace and strength through your own pilgrimage this Lent!

-Pr. Nathan


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