Last week I gave an overview on the history and purpose of meditating on the Way of the Cross. Over the next few weeks, we will enter into a deeper reflection on each station. Today, we’ll cover the first three.
The First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death
The Way of the Cross begins when Jesus was sentenced to death in Pontius Pilate’s praetorium. The prior evening, just after having supper with His friends, Jesus was arrested in the dark of night and shuffled back and forth between Pontius Pilate and Herod as they tried to decide what to do with Him. There was an angry mob crying for Him to receive the death penalty, despite the fact that He committed no real crime. Jesus was fully divine, but He was also fully human and experienced the same emotions that any of us would experience in a situation such as this.
He prayed with such agony in the Garden of Gethsemane for the strength to endure what was to come, that He sweat blood. He experienced the feelings of utter betrayal as His good friend, Judas, betrayed Him with a kiss, leading the authorities to brutally arrest Him. Imagine His confusion and fear as He was manhandled, being dragged through the streets while being screamed at from all sides. As He was questioned, He never wavered in His responses because He only spoke truth, not needing to say too much or too little. After all of that, He was condemned to death in the worst possible way. He watched the authorities release a known criminal, Barabbas, so that He Himself could take his place on the cross – something He was willing to do for each and every one of us, with Barabbas serving as the outward, physical sign of that gesture. As He stood in the midst of the crowd, facing those who were condemning Him, He loved them still, resolved to accomplish His Father’s will.
Have you ever been unjustly condemned for something that you did not do, or because of someone’s misunderstanding of your intentions? When you are afraid, confused, betrayed, and sorrowful, are you willing to accept what is happening to you for God’s greater plan? If you knew that suffering an unjust condemnation could help to secure the salvation of those who condemn you, would you be more willing to suffer it out of love for them? Imagine yourself standing in the praetorium next to Jesus, seeing and hearing the jeers of the crowd, the religious hierarchy, and the Roman authorities. Take His hand and walk forward with Him, in faith knowing that God has a great plan, far beyond what you can see in front of you, and that with Him, you will have the strength to watch it unfold.
The Second Station: Jesus Carries His Cross
By the time Jesus received His cross, He has already been beaten and scourged beyond recognition and His head was continually pierced with thorns as He bore His crown. His captors were cruel without any regard for His humanity. His flesh was flayed open and He had lost enormous amounts of blood. Jesus was in a great deal of pain and physically weakened when they laid His cross upon His back for Him to carry up Mount Calvary. The wood of the cross had not been sanded down. It was rough with knots and splinters, and it was heavy and strong as it soon had to hold the weight of a man. How cruel that a man would have to carry the very instrument of his own torture in this way. There is a devotion to the shoulder wound of Christ. Tradition holds that St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) prayed to Jesus asking which wound caused Him the most suffering. Jesus responded, “I had on My Shoulder while I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound which was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men.” St. Bernard then wrote the following prayer as an act of devotion to this most sacred wound of Jesus:
O Loving Jesus, Meek Lamb of God, I, a miserable sinner, salute and worship the most Sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so tore Thy Flesh and laid bare Thy Bones as to inflict on Thee an anguish greater than any other wound of Thy Most Blessed Body. I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain and by the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross, to be merciful to me, a sinner, to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins and to lead me on towards Heaven along the Way of Thy Cross. Amen.
Later, St. Padre Pio (1887-1968) would receive this shoulder wound as part of his stigmata, bearing the wounds of Christ. As you contemplate Jesus carrying His cross with His shoulder searing with more pain than any of the other wounds caused by His beatings, do you feel your own rough and oppressive cross lighten just a bit? He tells us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light,” (Matt 11:29-30).
The Third Station: Jesus Falls for the First Time
His body weakened from all it had endured and under the weight of His cross, Jesus fell down for the first time. The road on which He was walking was covered in sharp rocks and other debris, all digging into His bare feet. He was undoubtedly stubbing His toes and tripping over the rocks as His weak body carried His heavy cross. Falling was inevitable under these horrific circumstances. When you carry your own cross, you are weakened in your human nature by sin, trauma, and raw emotions. As if that is not enough, you also do not walk on a smooth path, but on a path covered in the rocks and debris due to external circumstances, causing you to stub your toes and trip. Just as Jesus did, we too, will fall on our journey. How can we not? In some sense, this particular scene might offer us a bit of solace. We often hear how we should pick up our cross and follow Him, as if it is an easy thing to do, and so long as we embrace our cross, rather than drag it, things will go better for us. However, our human nature is weak. Sometimes we feel as if we just don’t have the strength to go on and we do fall. Jesus shows us that it is ok so long as we have the correct response: get back up and carry on, no matter how difficult. How tempting it must have been for Jesus to choose to remain on the ground, refusing to move another inch, forcing His captors to carry Him the rest of the way, but this was not the choice He made. He knew that His work in moving forward was redemptive and that to stand up and move forward was to continue to fulfill the plan of His Father. Keep in mind, that even though you fall, your work is redemptive in its participation with God’s plan, so long as you stand back up and keep moving forward.
Next week we’ll continue our journey on the Way of the Cross with the fourth, fifth, and sixth stations.