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Apr 3, 2020

Stations of the Cross: A Lenten Tradition of Love

Caroline Harvey

There are certain Lenten practices that are so customary or traditional that without them Lent would not be Lent. This is the same for most holidays and celebrations—what is Christmas without a Christmas tree or Nativity scene, or a birthday with a cake, candles and singing? With Lent, Catholics are used to the announcements after Mass about Friday fish fries, reconciliation services, and the praying of the Stations of the Cross. 

Traditions can become so commonplace, so normal, that we may not even know why we are doing them. Why do we have a Christmas tree? Why do we use candles to show how old someone is on their birthday? Or, why do we watch the priest or deacon walk around the church as we kneel and stand during the Stations of the Cross? There is nothing wrong with upholding traditions for the sake of tradition; there is something dignified about respecting the actions and words that have been handed down to the current generations from generations past. However, with every tradition, there comes a moment when the person partaking in it recognizes the importance of the actions and the words, more than just for the sake of ancient repetition. This “coming of age”, so to speak, allows the person to enter into the mystery of the tradition and participate in it in a way that transcends time and space. 

Memories and Remembrance

Transcending time and space may seem a bit extreme when we are talking about blowing out candles at a birthday party. That is probably a fair assessment. However, certain traditions in the Catholic Faith do have this transcendent nature, and it is important to understand this and enter into it. Think of the Mass. When the priest says the words of Christ during the Institution of the Eucharist, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he is not asking us to think about Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross like we would have memories of an event in the past. Jesus is asking us to enter into the mystery of his sacrifice, to be present at the one sacrifice he eternally offers to the Father (see Hebrews, chapter 9) for our sake and the forgiveness of sin. At the Mass, the veil between heaven and earth is torn, and time no longer constrains us. The present becomes the eternal present of heavenly worship.

We should think of this movement from our understanding of “the present” whenever we enter into prayer. In prayer, we place ourselves in the presence of God—the maker of time—and in doing so, time loses its grip on us. Some amazing stories of the saints reveal this mystery of the time. For example, St. John Paul II was known to spend long periods in prayer that passed quite quickly for him—and those who were with him—without effort or notice. Prayer, especially prayer with Scripture or meditative prayer on the life of Jesus, allows us to enter into God’s time. The Word of God and the actions of God are transcendent, and that is why Scripture or hearing about the life of Jesus, can speak to us personally and with profound meaning.

Walking with Jesus 

When people go on pilgrimage, they are seeking to follow in the footsteps of a great saint or visit a holy place where a saint has lived or where Jesus or Mary have lived or appeared. Pilgrimages are great acts of faith because the pilgrim is demonstrating, through great cost and effort of travel, that they believe a certain place is holy and to be venerated. After all, Jesus or a saint has been there. The Holy Land, the Camino de Santiago, the Marian apparition sites or the hometowns of saints are popular pilgrim destinations. 

Perhaps today more than ever it is feasible for many people to go on a pilgrimage. Traveling long distances is not as taxing or as expensive as it used to be. The Stations of the Cross—as most of us experience it today—developed because it used to be quite difficult for many people to travel to Jerusalem. Because many people wanted to reflect upon and honor the various moments of Jesus’ passion, churches used paintings or other visual representations in the church building to construct a mini-pilgrimage for the faithful who could not travel to Jerusalem. Now, anyone can virtually walk the Via Dolorosa with Jesus in prayer, never leaving their church or even their pew. 

The Via Dolorosa

Each station in this ancient pilgrimage practice remembers significant moments on Jesus’ walk from the Praetorium, where he was sentenced to death, to Golgatha (Calvary) outside of the city walls, to the tomb in a nearby garden. The fourteen stations not only help us understand what this difficult journey was like, but they also allow us to enter into this way of sorrow and be present to Jesus.

Through prayer, we can be the consoling face in the crowd that Jesus finds as he slowly makes his way through the streets. We can see how much he struggled to bear the weight of the Cross, falling three times under its weight, and offer to Jesus at that moment all of our struggles that are weighing us down. We can see Veronica wipe his bloody face with her veil and find the courage to offer assistance to those around us who need mercy and compassion. We can stand alongside Mary and John as Jesus hangs on the cross, learning what mercy incarnate looks like, as we hear Jesus cry out:

“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

Luke 23:34

Jesus’ suffering and death is the atonement of our sins. Remembering his suffering and walking with him on his sorrowful journey is not meant to invoke guilt, shame, or condemnation. Rather, this pilgrimage is meant to show us Jesus’ tremendous love for us in saving us from our sins. Knowing the full weight of what he suffered allows us to know the full weight of his mercy. To walk with Jesus on this pilgrimage is to encounter his wounds, his sorrows, and his death to know in true faith that Jesus died for you out of love.

“No greater love is there than this than to lay down one’s life for a friend.”

John 15:13

You May Also Like:

No Greater Love: A Biblical Walk through Christ’s Passion [study program]

The Way of the Cross: Praying the Psalms with Jesus [book]

Praying the Stations of the Cross at Home

Living Memento Mori (with Emily Deardo)

World Youth Day 2019: Stories and Stations (Day 6)

Caroline Harvey is the associate communication director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Prior to working at the archdiocese, Caroline worked in various ministry positions throughout southeast Wisconsin, focusing on teaching and discipleship. She is currently pursuing a doctor of ministry degree in liturgical catechesis from the Catholic University of America. She has a master of arts degree in biblical theology and a bachelor of arts in communications media from John Paul the Great Catholic University.  

Featured image by Bronisław Dróżka from Pixabay

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