Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 10, 2003
What are the Stations of the Cross?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
We have prayers with the Stations of the Cross at our church during Lent. Where did they come from? Why are there 14 stations? How can I make them more meaningful?
The Stations of the Cross are a time-honoured Catholic tradition, with roots in the deepest soil of the Church. They have always been very important for Catholics. Our churches have the stations on their walls and pilgrimages and other sites have outdoor stations in life-size statues.
Their origins lie in the Via Dolorosa (the Sorrowful Way), the path Christ trod on his way to the crucifixion. Early pilgrims to Jerusalem were deeply touched by walking in Christ's footsteps. So they tried to preserve that memory with images depicting the events along the way.
The first stations, varying from five to 30, were erected in fifth century Italy. For the ordinary person, it became a vicarious journey with Jesus as they moved from image to image.
The Franciscans promoted this devotion when they took custody of the Holy Land in the 1300s. The Church eventually approved 14 stations, beginning with Jesus' condemnation and ending with his burial.
Today, we sometimes see a 15th station depicting the resurrection. However, early Christians who entered deeply into the passion of Christ were left with Christ entombed in anticipation of the glorious resurrection.
Some of the stations in our traditional version represent Gospel scenes while others are probably legends. Pope John Paul in his usual Good Friday stations once changed the traditional stations, using scenes which follow the Gospel accounts more closely.
Briefly, they were: the agony, betrayed by Judas, condemned by the Sanhedrin, denied by Peter, condemned by Pilate, scourged/crowned, carried the cross, Simon of Cyrene, women of Jerusalem, crucifixion, promised Paradise for repentant thief, Jesus spoke to Mary and John, death, burial.
Today, we have available many different prayers/reflections which can be used for individual or communal praying of the stations. Some of these focus on the suffering of the most abandoned, much as Jesus did during his public life.
We also see a variety of depictions of the Stations of the Cross. Often, we see the traditional images of Jesus and the entourage of first century times but we also have images of suffering in our own world and abstract images.
One of the most famous of the latter is a series of stark black and white images by the French painter Henri Matisse painted in 1949-51. Although he was not a religious man, Matisse felt transformed from spectator to participant in the sufferings of Christ as he went about his work.
In San Salvador University, on the other hand, gruesome scenes of the suffering inflicted on the peasants in the 12-year civil war line the back walls of the chapel. To us, this may seem frightful, but when we reflect on Jesus' Passion, we realize these pictures show us the truth.
The purpose of the stations is not to admire sterile images of Christ's passion, but to be reminded most forcefully of the pain-filled suffering and death which Jesus bore out of love for us.
The ashes on Ash Wednesday are a powerful reminder that we, too, are subject to death as is all of humanity, but we can draw solace and hope from Jesus' suffering.
The re-enactment of the Way of the Cross on the streets of Toronto during World Youth Day provided a life-giving encounter for those who participated in or watched it, as well as for those who saw it on television. Similarly, the hundreds of people who go to the Passion Play in the awesome natural setting at Drumheller are deeply touched by the experience.
The Way of the Cross which goes into the deprived areas of our city has taken on a profound meaning as it has grown from small beginnings to large numbers, including many Christians from other traditions who usually don't have stations in their churches.
This devotion may be more important than ever in a world obsessed with avoiding pain at all costs. Unwilling to admit to the impossibility of that, we are left feeling vulnerable and not in control of our lives.
The Stations of the Cross are a privileged time to reflect on the love of God for us, to connect with suffering as part of our humanity, to consider how injustice in our society often inflicts unnecessary suffering and to view our own lives in the light of God's love and our responsibility to others.
In this visual age, we are indeed fortunate to have the Stations of the Cross which keep our faith in Christ in the forefront of our lives.
But we need to take advantage of these and of the many visual portrayals the Church offers us.
I remember well the inspiration it was to me, as a child, praying the stations during Lent in my home where we had a large picture with the 14 stations.