Every year millions of people around the world will spend time before Easter praying the Stations of the Cross. Also known as the Way of the Cross, the stations form a sacred meditation that focuses on the Passion of Christ. Traditionally composed of fourteen events that trace the final path of Jesus’s life, from the hours after the Last Supper up until the Crucifixion, the Stations of the Cross is a contemplative practice; a pilgrimage into the suffering heart of Jesus that can be of tremendous value in helping you to deal with your own burdens.
A little history
This centuries old devotion on suffering emerged from the desire of Jesus’s earliest followers to reverently trace his steps in the final hours before his death. Over time, more and more people joined in this practice and it spread throughout the Western world. In the early development of this devotion, many would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, to experience the actual sites described in the biblical accounts of Christ’s Passion -- that is, until the Crusades, when travel to the Holy Land became increasingly perilous. When it became too dangerous for people to make these trips, many churches adapted the walk by constructing artistic images of these events in Jesus’s life and placing them on cathedral walls, thereby opening up the practice to locals in a new and much safer way. If this seems a little odd for someone unfamiliar with the practice, consider the memorials in Washington, D.C. that allow tourists the opportunity to honor and connect to people who have given their lives to defend and serve the United States. Many visitors who make pilgrimages to these political memorials speak of them as sacred spaces, monuments of reflection, just like the Stations of the Cross, which can be found in churches all around the world.
A journey of the heart
By their very nature, the Stations of the Cross and the images associated with them are emotionally charged. The stations reveal the lowest point in Jesus’s life. Precisely because of this, they resonate with our experiences of difficult times in our lives. They also echo the tough times that we hold in our memories. In these ways, the stations appeal more to the heart than they do to the head. When we take Jesus’s suffering into us and ponder in our hearts the events he experienced, we are stirred from spiritual sleep. To be awakened like this can be disruptive, perhaps even alarming. But the point of the exercise is to nudge us into thinking about, as Christians who are supposed to be living in imitation of Christ’s life, what the stations indicate about where we are on our own faith journey.
The human side of Jesus
What is so remarkable about the Passion is that this is where we find Jesus at his most human. Once he’s condemned to death, there are no miracles. No one walks on water or is healed of leprosy. The blind don’t regain their sight, the paralytics don’t get up and walk. Nowhere in the Bible is Jesus more like you and me. Even at his birth angels appeared in the sky. There are no angels here. Just torture, betrayal, and death.
Yet, even in this most corporeal and atrocious of experiences, Jesus doesn’t do what most of us might do. He does not behave in typically human ways. No one would have blamed him for cursing his tormenters. And yet he did not. He forgave them. He could have freaked out, ranting and raving against his captors when he was taken and restrained, but he didn’t. He stayed calm. He could have scorned his friend Peter, who denied him in his moment of greatest need. And yet Jesus accepted Peter’s weakness and then, astonishingly, still wanted him to be the rock of the Church.
All this is to say, if we want to know how we can be truly human, we can do little better than to spend time contemplating Jesus’ Passion through the Stations of the Cross.
Praying the Stations of the Cross in five easy steps
Step 1: Choose a Station (see panel below). Let’s say we’re focusing on Jesus taking up his cross. You can read a passage from the Bible that correlates to that scene or simply picture an image in your mind. Then take a few deep breaths and ask God to help you quiet your head and open your heart. You may feel tired, nervous, or angry, but that’s okay. Just try. Allow yourself to find a level of openness that is authentic in that moment.
Step 2: Remind yourself that God is all around you. Try to feel that reality as best as you can. Then call forth the image of Jesus carrying his cross and, using your imagination, place that image inside heart.
Step 3: Ask God to help you meditate on the scene inside you. How do you think Jesus felt when this was happening? What was he thinking? What is your cross to bear? How heavy is it? How does it affect your relationship with God?
Step 4: Review your day. Where did your cross feel the heaviest today? Where did you encounter the cross on the shoulders of others at work, on the news, or in the streets? Where is God in these encounters? What did you do to help that person carry his or her burden?
Step 5: Give thanks to God and ask for help in becoming more aware of the crosses that everyone carries in life.
Traditional Stations of the Cross
The First Station: Jesus Is Condemned to Death
The Second Station: Jesus Carries His Cross
The Third Station: Jesus Falls for the First Time
The Fourth Station: Jesus Meets His Mother
The Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene Helps Carry the Cross
The Sixth Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
The Seventh Station: Jesus Falls the Second Time
The Eighth Station: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem
The Ninth Station: Jesus Falls the Third Time
The Tenth Station: Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments
The Eleventh Station: Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
The Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross
The Thirteenth Station: Jesus Is Taken Down from the Cross
The Fourteenth Station: Jesus Is Buried in the Tomb