The Stations of the Cross: honoring Christ’s journey

People are finding new meaning in one of the most familiar Lenten devotions, the Stations of the Cross.

The vivid images of Christ’s sufferings in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” cause many to say they will never pray the “Stations” without recalling scenes from the movie. Creative scheduling to suit the busy lives of parishioners has also increased attendance.

Formerly, many parishes prayed the Stations on Friday night, the night of Christ’s death. Weekend time is so valuable to families that many parishes move the devotion to another weeknight, and attendance is much better.

After Stations, some parishes invite people to a light, penitential supper of soups, breads, and perhaps sandwiches. People can make donations to groups that serve the poor. In one evening, otherwise busy people are able to participate in the three works of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. The Stations of the Cross are a form of connection with the sacred places in the Holy Land which honor the steps along Christ’s journey to the cross.

In the earliest centuries of the Church, Christians made pilgrimages to the significant places in the life of Christ. In time, Christians could not travel to the holy places so they brought the holy places to Europe with shrines depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

With the chaos of the Dark Ages and the advance of Islam into the Holy Land, Christians no longer visited the holy places. Many veterans of the Crusades returned to Europe and erected depictions of the places they had visited.

Devotion to the suffering of Christ arose in the 12th and 13th centuries and the idea of various scenes representing the suffering of Christ became widespread.

As early as the fifth century, Stations were erected in Italy. By the 15th century, shrines to the suffering of Christ were widespread in Europe. The number of “stops” along the Stations varied from five to sometimes over 30.

In time, the custom of 14 stops emerged. Pope Clement XII stabilized the common number with a decree issued in 1731.

Through the centuries, arts have depicted the scenes of Christ’s suffering in many forms. Though the visual presentations assist people with their meditations, the only required decoration is a simple cross at each stop.

Like much popular worship, the Stations involve the entire body in movement from place to place. When prayed privately, an individual moves from station to station. In larger celebrations, the leader moves on behalf of all present.

Unlike the Church’s Liturgy, which has precise directions for celebrations, the Stations of the Cross allow for considerable adaptation.

There are many forms for the meditations and prayers offered at the various stations. There are Stations of the Cross for general use, for adolescents, and for the terminally ill. Some forms are based in ancient formularies while some are Scriptural. The only requirement is that at each cross, some meditation be made on Christ’s suffering and death.

The customary 14 Stations are: 1. Jesus is condemned to death; 2. Jesus is made to carry His cross; 3. Jesus falls the first time; 4. Jesus meets His Mother; 5. Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross; 6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus; 7. Jesus falls the second time; 8. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem; 9. Jesus falls the third time; 10. Jesus is stripped of His garments; 11. Jesus is nailed to the cross; 12. Jesus dies on the cross; 13. Jesus is taken down from the cross; 14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Msgr. Lawrence B. McInerny, J.C.L., is pastor of Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island.