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04 April 2019

Stations of the cross: Remembering Christ’s suffering.

One of the ways we remember, and appreciate, Jesus’s death.

In Jerusalem, Israel, Christians remember Jesus’s death by actually going down the route he traveled the day he died. It’s called the Way of Jesus, the Way of Sorrows (Latin, Via Dolorosa), or the Way of the Cross (Via Cručis). When I visited Jerusalem, it’s part of the tour package: Loads of us Christians go this route every single day, observing all the places Jesus is said to have suffered. Really solemn, moving stuff.

But most of us Christians don’t live in or near Jerusalem, and some of us can’t possibly go there. For this reason St. Francis of Assisi invented “the stations of the cross.” In his church building, he set up seven different dioramas. Each represented an event which happened as Jesus was led to his death. The people of his church would go to each diorama—each station—and meditate on what Jesus did for us all.

Yeah, this is a Catholic thing, ’cause Francis was Roman Catholic. But it’s not exclusively Catholic: Many Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists use stations of the cross too. Be fair: If a Protestant invented it, you’d find Protestants doing it everywhere. ’Cause it’s a really useful idea.

It’s why I bring it up here. The stations of the cross are a clever, more tangible way to think about Jesus’s death, what he went through, and what that means. It’s why lots of Catholic churches—and a growing number of Protestant churches—keep the stations up year-round. Could take the form of paintings, sculptures, or stained-glass windows. Christians can “travel the Way of Jesus” any time we wanna contemplate his death, and what he did for us.

If you’ve ever seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, he made sure to include all the traditional stations in his movie. As do Catholic passion plays, reenactments of Jesus’s death. Protestant passion plays too, though we tend to skip most of the events we don’t find in the gospels. ’Cause as you’ll notice, some of Francis’s stations came from the popular culture of early 1200s Italy. Not the bible.

The 14 stations.

Originally Francis arranged seven stations. Sevens are really important in medieval Christian numerology: Days of the week, years between sabbath years, the sevenfold Spirit of God. Supposedly the number represents something complete, like God’s creation week. Christians are still really fond of sevens. So here ya go: The first draft of the stations of the cross.

  1. Jesus is given his cross.
  2. Jesus falls down.
  3. Jesus encounters his mother.
  4. St. Veronica wipes Jesus’s face off.
  5. Jesus falls down again.
  6. Jesus is crucified.
  7. Jesus is laid in his tomb.

No, the gospels don’t mention Jesus falling down. I know; you totally thought he did fall down, didn’t you? Everybody depicts it: Paintings, movies, passion plays; Jesus is always keeling over. Sometimes with his hands strapped to the crossbeam so he can’t catch himself, so his face smacks into the pavement stones. It’s a good example of how Christian popular culture has some not-so-biblical things in it.

St. Veronica is less familiar to Protestants. She’s a bleeder Jesus cured, and according to legend she was there in Jerusalem as Jesus was led to his death; she let him wipe his bloody face on her veil, and it miraculously turned into a photorealistic image of him. No, the legend’s not in the gospels at all. But in Francis’s part of Italy just about every church had a “veronica,” a cloth with Jesus’s face painted on it. So into his stations it went.

Different churches fiddled with the stations, their order, and their number. Some of ’em created thirty stations. The current “standard set” consists of 14 stations: Two sets of seven. (Gotta have those sevens.) Sometimes they add a 15th station, representing Jesus’s resurrection. Anyway here they are.

  1. Jesus is condemned to death.
  2. Jesus is given his cross.
  3. Jesus falls down.
  4. Jesus encounters his mother.
  5. Symon of Cyrene takes Jesus’s cross.
  6. St. Veronica wipes Jesus’s face off.
  7. Jesus falls down a second time.
  1. Jesus speaks to the “daughters of Jerusalem.”
  2. Jesus falls down a third time.
  3. Jesus’s clothes are stripped off.
  4. Jesus is nailed to the cross.
  5. Jesus dies.
  6. Jesus’s body is removed from the cross.
  7. Jesus’s body is put in the tomb.

What’s with Jesus falling down thrice? Because three’s another important number in medieval Christian numerology. You know, like the trinity; the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the three days and nights Jonah was in the whale; Jh 1.17 Jesus’s three temptations and third-day resurrection… I could go on, but you get it.

As you move to each station, custom is to pray a little something at each. Catholic congregations tend to go like so:

LEADER. “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.”
EVERYONE. “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

A lot of Christians—myself included—figure the bible is more historically accurate than tradition, so we prefer to stick to the gospels, ’cause we know they actually happened to Jesus. For our sake, St. John Paul came up with scriptural stations of the cross in 1991. Personally I like John Paul’s list better. It’s more thorough.

  1. Jesus prays in Gethsemane. Mk 14.32-42, Mt 26.36-46, Lk 22.39-46, Jn 18.1-2
  2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested. Mk 14.43-52, Mt 26.47-56, Lk 22.47-54, Jn 18.2-12
  3. Jesus is condemned by the Jewish senate. Mk 14.55-65, Mt 26.59-68, Lk 22.63-71, Jn 18.19-24
  4. Jesus is denied by Peter. Mk 14.66-72, Mt 26.69-75, Lk 22.54-62, Jn 18.15-18, 25-27
  5. Jesus is judged by Pilate. Mk 15.1-15, Mt 27.11-26, Lk 23.1-25, Jn 18.28-40
  6. Jesus is flogged; crowned with thorns. Mk 15.16-17, Mt 27.26-29, Lk 23.16, Jn 19.1-3
  7. Jesus is mocked; led out to be crucified. Mk 15.18-20, Mt 27.27-31, Lk 23.11, 25, Jn 19.4-16
  8. Simon of Cyrene takes Jesus’s cross. Mk 15.21, Mt 27.32, Lk 23.26
  9. Jesus speaks to the women of Jerusalem. Lk 23.27-31
  10. Jesus is crucified. Mk 15.22-26, Mt 27.33-37, Lk 23.32-38, Jn 19.16-25
  11. Jesus speaks to the repentant thief. Lk 23.39-43
  12. Jesus speaks to his mother and beloved student. Jn 19.25-27
  13. Jesus dies. Mk 15.33-39, Mt 27.45-54, Lk 23.44-49, Jn 19.28-30
  14. Jesus’s body is taken down and entombed. Mk 15.42-47, Mt 27.57-61, Lk 23.50-56, Jn 19.38-42

These bits are also in The Passion of the Christ—and for that matter, most of the other, less-gory Jesus movies.

For Eastertide I intend to write a few articles about some the stations from John Paul’s list. It’s important to look at what Jesus did for us. And not just during the Easter season.

Let’s not skip over it because it’s so horrible, because we don’t want to dwell on sad things. The reason Easter is so awesome is because Jesus conquered his horrible death. In dying, he took our sins to the grave with him. That, at least, is something to celebrate about Holy Week.