For this year’s Lenten season, I’ll offer a series of reflections on the Way of the Cross. Before reviewing each of the stations, let’s look at what this practice is and where it comes from.
The Way of the Cross is a devotion that facilitates meditation while commemorating the specific events that occurred on Jesus’ final journey, beginning with His arrest on Holy Thursday, and concluding at the tomb on Good Friday after His crucifixion at Calvary. While usually associated with Catholicism, this commemoration is also shared with a couple of other Christian denominations. You may hear it referred to as the Stations of the Cross, Way of Sorrows, Via Dolorosa, or Via Crucis. Each station along the journey is identified by some sort of marker with an image indicating the specific event being remembered.
There is space between each station so the faithful may journey with Jesus and participate in a mini pilgrimage. Typically, there is a meditation at each station, along with prayers and a kneeling posture, as we demonstrate our regret and penitence for our sins, which are the source of Jesus’ suffering.
Some of the stations are found in Scripture itself, like Simon helping Jesus to carry his cross, or when Jesus is stripped of his garments, while others, like Veronica wiping the face of Jesus, are not. So, the question naturally arises, “Where did these stations come from?” For this answer, we go to the Catholic source of Tradition. Remember, the Catholic Church does not hold that Scripture is the only source of revelation, rather, we also look to two other sources, namely, Tradition and the Magisterium, as equal in revelation to Scripture. Scripture contains all of the information that is necessary for our salvation, but it certainly does not contain every single event that ever happened, so we look to our Christian family’s tradition to hand on other information to us. Therefore, those who were actually present for Jesus’ passion, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, relayed the events to others, resulting in a handing down of the story through the generations.
Let’s look at how this might work in relatable terms. Say your great-grandmother, great-grandfather, great-great aunt, and great-uncle each wrote memoirs of their lives, which would then be handed down through the generations of your family. These memoirs would be a treasure and contain a wealth of information about your family history that could last for generations to come. However, it would be impossible for them to record every second of those lives lived long ago. Now, what if your great-grandmother’s memoir did not include a chapter of her favorite recipes? Would that mean that the box of her recipe cards in your cupboard that you received from you mom cannot be trusted to be those of your great-grandmother? Or, what if your great-uncle was a master woodworker, but his book does not mention the elaborate cabinet he made that is now sitting in your living room? Are all of the stories you heard about how long it took him to build it and the pains he took to build it somehow negated? This is how Catholic tradition works and how we get the complete Stations of the Cross. Some of them were written in the books, while others were handed down, and subsequently written down, by others who were there so that we could have the benefit of their memories many generations later.
Tradition holds that Mary would walk along the Way of the Cross every day. It does not require a stretch of the imagination to believe this to be true, as any loving mother would do the same after losing her son in such a brutal way. She would have still been friends with the apostles and other disciples, like Mary Magdalene, so she would have shared this devotion with them. Since the practice of Christianity was illegal in its earliest days, the Way of the Cross remained unmarked and dependent on those who were there for the passing on of the tradition. Once Emperor Constantine converted and legalized Christianity in 313 AD, markers were officially added on the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem so that pilgrims could publicly retrace Jesus’ steps. St. Jerome (342-420), the great saint that translated the Bible into Latin, wrote about the devotion to the Way of the Cross by pilgrims coming to visit the important sites where Jesus walked the earth. As time went on, it slowly became customary for the faithful who could not make the journey to Jerusalem, to instead, build their own little monuments commemorating the stations. Thus, they could still make the journey in a spiritual sense through prayer and meditation. Thankfully, in 1686, Pope Innocent XI permitted the Franciscans – who had been charged with caring for and promoting holy places – to build monuments of the stations throughout Europe so that the faithful at large had access to the practice. Now, you can find the stations placed around every Catholic church and various Catholic sites all over the world.
The number of stations have varied throughout the years depending on who was praying and where they were being meditated upon. It was under Pope Innocent XI’s direction to the Franciscans that the standard and traditional 14 stations were codified in order that Catholics around the world were unified in the practice. The Catholic Church is to always remain “one” and the indulgences available through the devotion are universally accessible through the standardly ordered devotion. Pope St. John Paul II then started encouraging meditation on the Resurrection as the 15th station, which is now commonly reflected in newer renditions of the devotion in churches. For this reflection series, however, we will stick with the 14 stations, leaving the Resurrection for Easter.
Inspired by this beautiful devotion, especially highlighted during Lent, many people, including some great saints, have written beautiful and poignant meditations on the Way of the Cross that can serve as aids for us as we walk this walk with Jesus. The most notable and beloved set of meditations is The Way of the Cross, by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787), though there are countless versions available online and at any Catholic bookstore. This Lent, if possible, participate in a public Way of the Cross with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Most parishes, including ours, offer this devotion on the Fridays of Lent. As we proceed through the next few weeks of Lent, we’ll spend some more time focused on each of the stations, allowing the reality of these events to penetrate our hearts and minds.