Reinventing Spiritual Disciplines: Stations of the Cross
As described in the earlier post, pilgrimage is an ancient discipline that I now seek to incorporate into my spiritual life. Another ancient discipline that I am currently experimenting with is the Stations of the Cross. In many ways, it is another form of pilgrimage.
I have participated in two official Stations of the Cross services. The first service was several years ago at the St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter in New Orleans. I don't remember a lot of specifics, but I do remember experiencing God in a way that I had never sensed before. The other service was a physical walk along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem during my pilgrimage there in Fall 2005. The pictures included in this blog are from the Stations in the church at Bethphage.
If you have watched Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, then you have also experienced the Stations of the Cross. He used the traditional 14 stations as the storyboard for his movie.
Matthew 16:24: "Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish ambition, shoulder your cross, and follow me.’"
For centuries, Christians have journeyed to the Holy Land to walk in the actual footsteps of Jesus. They follow a path known as the Via Dolorosa ("Way of Sorrow"), which is believed to be the actual route Jesus walked from Pilate’s court to his crucifixion at Golgotha to his burial in the tomb.
The path has also been called Via Sacris ("Sacred Way") and Via Crucis ("Way of the Cross").
The early literature does not specify a number of stations. They range from 7 to 37. By the 17th century, 14 stations seemed to be the most common number and the Roman Catholic Church formalized it. The Roman Catholic Church connected indulgences to praying the Stations but that stopped with the spread of the Reformation.
The 14 Stations of the Cross trace Jesus’ path from Pilate’s house to Golgotha to his tomb, mixing some events we find in Scripture with some that come to us via the tradition of the church. Nine stations are drawn from Biblical accounts; the others are rooted in church tradition. Legend holds that Veronica added herself. Some churches have added a 15th station for Christ’s resurrection. But many people believe that is to be celebrated on Easter Sunday, not during Lent.
Pilgrimage to the Holy Land required a tremendous financial investment. Soon, replicas of the Via Dolorosa were erected throughout Europe so that people could participate in the devotional exercise without going to Jerusalem.
One of the most famous sets of Stations was erected outside the Colosseum in Rome. A Franciscan Friar leads the processional every Friday, and the Pope leads it on Good Friday.
Thousands of pilgrims still trek to the Holy Land every year to walk the Stations of the Cross in Jerusalem. At each of the 14 stops, there is a plaque where groups will pause to read Scripture, meditate on the events, pray, and perhaps sing a hymn. The group is typically led by a person carrying a cross.
The Stations of the Cross can be observed as a private discipline, but it is best done in the context of community. The Stations are most often used in corporate worship experiences during the season of Lent and Holy Week. Good Friday is the most common day for the observation of the devotion.
Here's how it usually works. Most Catholic churches have erected symbolic representations of each of the 14 stations. I have seen stations that depict the 14 stations through drawing, painting, sculpture, stained glass, and wood carving. Led by a priest or minister, the congregation proceeds from station to station stopping at each for relevant Scripture reading, prayer, meditation, and singing.
Amazingly, there is no prescribed prayer for each station. Many different prayer books and articles for reflection have been written to complement the Stations.
Stations as Pilgrimage
Observing the Stations of the Cross is really a virtual pilgrimage. It is an altar moment. One of the greatest dangers we face spiritually is remembering what we should forget and forgetting what we should remember. People in the Bible were always making altars to remember what God had done for them. The Stations of the Cross are altars, and practicing this devotional exercise is a virtual pilgrimage.
Tony Jones said, "It’s as if each time I walk them, I’m also walking with my past." I feel like that is very true for me. As I reflect on the Stations of the Cross, I am swept back to the first time I walked the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.
Margaret McKenna explained the Stations as follows: "The walking of the Way of the Cross is the lifestyle of Christians, celebrated ritually in the Stations of the Cross but lived daily."
It is an opportunity to connect with Christ in a very raw way. In Ancient-Future Time, Robert Webber describes his experience, "I have celebrated this service many times, but each time it brings me into a fresh encounter with the journey of Jesus into death. In every step of that journey I carry with me my Lenten experience and my commitment to change from a servanthood to the evil one into living in the likeness of Christ. When Jesus is condemned to death, then nailed to the cross, and finally placed in the grave, I experience my sins being placed upon him, nailed to the cross with him, and finally buried with him in the grave. In this way, the Stations of the Cross service readies me more intensely for an internal experience of the resurrection soon to come."
Stations in Community
It’s also a time of community building. Like baptism, communion, and other spiritual practices, it unites me with other believers across the millennia who have physically and metaphorically walked in the footsteps of Christ through this devotional exercise.
Stations as a Pathway Through Suffering
In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on justice issues related to the practice of the Stations of the Cross. In this approach, Jesus’ suffering is connected to and compared to suffering that exists in the world. Many approach the Stations as a lens through which to view suffering and to consider the Christian’s response to poverty and justice issues.
Megan McKenna says, "The Stations of the Cross are a compass, a guide for the heart, a blueprint, and a source for sounding out our responses to what prevails and happens in our world today. They offer wise counsel on how to walk with dignity, with grace, with compassion, and with the freedom that the children of God have, no matter what they encounter along the way...It is the way of God’s agony among us and how God draws our attention to injustice and sin among us."
Henri Nouwen’s book on the Stations of the Cross, Walk With Jesus, focuses on the stations as a discipline for examining our response to suffering.
This semester, I am leading a Stations of the Cross small group.
The purpose of the group is stated as follows: To explore the devotional tool of the Stations of the Cross within the context of community. We will study both the traditional stations and the new stations and seek opportunities to experience them in different formats and environments. We will also strive to discover ways to make the Stations of the Cross experience available to others at National Community Church.Many protestant churches totally miss the agony and mystery of Easter. Because we neglect the Passion week, it is difficult to fully enter into the celebration of Easter morning. Practicing the Stations of the Cross can help people prepare spiritually for the joy of Easter.
For futher reading, I would recommend the following books:
Ancient-Future Faith (Robert Webber)
Ancient-Future Time (Robert Webber)
The Sacred Way (Tony Jones)
Examples of Stations of the Cross meditations and prayers:
The New Stations of the Cross (Megan McKenna)
Carrying the Cross With Christ (Joseph Sullivan)
Walking the Way of Sorrows (Katerina Whitley)
Walk With Jesus: Stations of the Cross (Henri Nouwen)
Christ's Passion (Mary Beth Young)
New Stations of the Cross (authored by Pope John Paul II to include only Biblical accounts)
Wikipedia- Stations of the Cross
Stations for Protestant Worship
How-to for Your Own Service
Sites of Stations in Jerusalem