Sunday, April 02, 2006

THE STATIONS OF THE CROSS... what and why?

What are The Stations of the Cross?

The Stations of the Cross is a popular devotion used by individuals or groups who wish through prayer and reflection to follow Jesus Christ on his way to Calvary. Many Christians practice the devotion, but the Stations holds a special significance among Roman Catholics. It is one of the most important devotions honoring the passion of Jesus.

What matters most in the Stations of the Cross is to follow Jesus Christ in his passion and to see ourselves mirrored in him. To face life's dark side in ourselves and in our world, we need images of hope, and Jesus offers images of hope in his passion. By accompanying him on the Way of the Cross, we gain his courageous patience and learn to trust in God who delivers us from evil.

Origins of the Stations: 4th Century Jerusalem

The devotion originated in the late 4th century when pilgrims flocked to the Holy Land from all parts of the world to visit the land of Jesus. Heading the list of places they visited was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which had been built by the Emperor Constantine in 335 AD atop Calvary and the tomb of Jesus.

Processions of pilgrims to this church were common. Egeria, a woman from Gaul who traveled to the Holy Land in the 4th century, recalls in her diary how she joined Christians from all parts of the Roman world walking westward on Holy Thursday from the garden of Gethsemane to the church of the Holy Sepulcher, where they celebrated Jesus' death and resurrection.

Over the years, the route of pilgrim processions -- beginning at the ruins of the Fortress Antonia and ending at the church of the Holy Sepulcher -- was accepted as the way that Jesus went to his death. It was known as the "Via Dolorosa," the "Sorrowful Way;" Today, it winds through the crowded areas of Jerusalem's Old City, and pilgrims still travel it in prayer.

"Stations" developed on this venerable route as early pilgrims honored places where specific incidents took place as Jesus went Calvary. However, the search for them was complicated because the Jerusalem of Jesus' day had been almost completely destroyed by Roman armies in 70 AD. In many cases, therefore, pilgrims could only guess where some incidents described in the gospel took place.
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Jesus Meets His Mother, Jesus' Three Falls,
the Story of Veronica

The gospel accounts of Jesus' passion --above all, St. Luke's account-- provide the background for most of the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross. Scenes of Jesus before Pilate, Jesus carrying his cross, Simon of Cyrene taking up the cross, the women lamenting as he passed, Jesus nailed to the Cross, and his death, deposition and burial are mentioned in them

But what about incidents not mentioned in the gospels? Such as his meeting with Mary, his mother; Veronica wiping his face with a cloth; his three falls? Where did these scenes come from? Most likely they came from early pilgrims to Jerusalem and are a tradition.

According to the gospel of John, Mary stood by his Cross (John 19,25-27). Would she not be part of the crowd accompanying him to Calvary, and would they not have met on the way? Pilgrims who walked along the Via Dolorosa surely believed they did.

Jesus must have been extremely weak during his passion. Why else was Simon of Cyrene pressed into service to carry his cross? Was his scourging by Pilate's soldiers exceptionally severe? Pilgrims on the Via Dolorosa surely concluded that Jesus fell from weakness more than once. As they themselves walked the rough, winding Jerusalem street, they came to believe that he fell many times.

The Story of Veronica

The story of Veronica is not told in the gospels, but in early apocryphal writings. An early 2nd century version of The Acts of Pilate reports that a woman named Veronica (Bernice, in the Greek version) was the same woman Jesus cured of a blood disorder (Matthew 9,20-22), and that she came to his trial before Pilate to claim his innocence.

Veronica and the Other Women
Who Ministered to Jesus

Women play an important role in the Stations of the Cross. In fact, the gospels portray them favorably throughout the passion story. Two passion accounts begin with the story of an unknown woman who anoints Jesus' head with precious ointment in the house of Simon the leper, at the same time that Judas and the leaders of the people plot his death (Matthew 26, 6-13; Mark 14, 3-9).

On his way to Calvary, "A great number of people followed him and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing over him" (Luke23, 27). On Calvary itself, "Many women were also there, looking on from a distance" (Matthew 27, 55). Women attended his burial: they "followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments" (Luke 23, 55-56). On Easter morning, they came to finish anointing his body, but found an empty tomb (Matthew 28, 1-10; John 20, 1-10).

Women customarily comforted the dying and buried the dead in Jesus' time and the gospel accounts of the passion recognize them fulfilling these roles. Indeed, Veronica admirably fulfills the gospel portrait-- a woman who reaches out to someone who is suffering and finds God's face behind the disguise.

Variations on the stations

In recent years some variations have been introduced into the traditional devotion. One of these is the addition of a 15th station - the Resurrection of Jesus. Another is a series of scriptural stations, which begin with the Agony of Jesus in Gethsemane and omit some of the traditional non-scriptural stations in favor of incidents mentioned in the gospels.

Pope John Paul II celebrated a series of scriptural stations on Good Friday in 1991, and again in 1994, in the Coliseum at Rome:

  1. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane
  2. Jesus betrayed by Judas
  3. Jesus condemned by the Sanhedrin
  4. Jesus denied by Peter
  5. Jesus condemned by the people
  6. Jesus crowned with thorns and clothed in purple.
  7. Jesus carries the cross.
  8. Jesus assisted by Simon of Cyrene
  9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  10. Jesus is crucified.
  11. Jesus speaks to the thief
  12. Jesus speaks to his mother
  13. Jesus dies on the cross
  14. Jesus is buried.

What Prayers do You Say?

There are no official prayers to say with the Stations of the Cross. For many centuries, pilgrims in Jerusalem were prevented from praying the devotion publicly along the Moslem-controlled Via Dolorosa, and so groups and individuals passed silently and quickly along the holy way. Without words, the devotion depended on the sentiments it raised in the human heart -- which may be a reason for its continuing popularity. Above, right: The Man of Sorrows. Medieval Christians identified with this image because it portrayed the fatigue and discouragement that was so much part of their lives.

Though there are no official prayers, saints and spiritual writers over the centuries have provided a wealth of prayers and aids for the devotion, and each year new aids appear.

What do you do?

Christians fortunate enough can still visit Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But it is not necessary to go to Jerusalem to find Christ-- or to make the Stations of the Cross. We can follow the stations in our own churches, homes, or places of prayer-- alone or with others. Nor is it necessary to walk from one image to another, if it cannot be done. We can make the Stations within our own hearts and minds-- as a "spiritual pilgrimage"

Following Jesus Christ

What matters most in the Stations of the Cross is to follow Jesus Christ in his passion and to see ourselves mirrored in him. Whether we know it or not, we bear the imprint of his cross. We are judged unjustly, we fall, we find life's journey hard, we know the mystery of death, and we recoil from it. To face life's dark side in ourselves and in our world, we need images of hope, and Jesus offers images of hope in his passion.

"Human kind cannot bear very much reality." (T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton) Through his passion and resurrection, Jesus transforms the reality of evil we find hard to bear. By accompanying him on the Way of the Cross, we gain his courageous patience and learn to trust in God who delivers us from evil.


Anonymous said...

Only those who Deny the Faith Contend. We will find the spirit of contention only among apostates and those who have denied the faith those who have turned away from the truth and have become enemies to God and his work. There you find the spirit of contention, the spirit of strife. There you will find them wanting to "argue the question," and to dispute with you all the time. Their food, their meat and their drink is contention, which is abominable in the sight of the Lord. They are easy to spot and best ignored.