Over the past few weeks, I have been writing about central pillars of Catholic practice during Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This week I consider Stations of the Cross, which, while not a pillar of Lenten practice, is a popular devotional practice among many Catholics. Admittedly, growing up, I was not a big fan of the Stations of the Cross. On a practical level, it seemed long and boring. As I got older, I also objected to the focus on the suffering and death of Jesus. It seemed a bit too macabre for my taste; I preferred to hear about the angry Jesus who overturned tables in the temple, the compassionate Jesus who healed and helped those on the margins of the society, and the resurrected Jesus who appeared to his followers to shore up their strength and commission them to spread his message.
So in the spirit of renewal this Lent, I am trying to think about the Stations of the Cross in a different way. What is a station for? A station is place where you wait, like a train station. So Stations of the Cross are places where we wait, where we take time to reflect on the path of Jesus as he went to the cross. Like other practices of Lent, praying the Stations of the Cross causes us to use our time differently—to slow down and to reflect on distinct moments of Jesus’ journey to the cross—and to think about ourselves and our place in the world differently. What does it mean for my life that Jesus endured suffering, in order that he might die and be resurrected? What does it mean for my life that living as he did resulted in Jesus being crucified on a cross like a common criminal? These are not easy questions to answer, but they are necessary ones as we strive to learn from the mystery of Jesus Christ. In our considering of them, we may find that, like Lazarus in this week’s Gospel, knowing Jesus results in the burial clothes that tie our bodies and shield our eyes as we live in the death of this world are removed so that we can live a new life with Christ.
Stations of the Cross also can be called the Way of the Cross. It is one of the ways that we can fulfill the injunction by Jesus in the Gospels to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him (Mark 8:34, Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23). Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross gives us a chance to go on a pilgrimage without leaving home, as we follow in the steps of Jesus. And while it is not helpful to focus only on the suffering and death of Jesus, neither is it good to completely gloss over the crucifixion and the events that led to it. We all know that there is a dark side in the world (and in ourselves, if we are honest); odd as it may sound, attending to Jesus’ passion can give us hope as we face the darkness in our lives and in our world. It also teaches us lessons about courage, patience, and trusting in a God who promises to deliver us from all evil.
To participate in the Stations of the Cross, individuals or groups remember fourteen scenes from the passion of Christ, that is, the suffering of Christ that ended in his death on the cross. Frequently, these scenes are depicted artistically—carved in stone, painted on wood—and arranged at intervals around a church building. Those praying the stations walk in the steps of Jesus, stopping at each scene to remember what happened to Christ and to say a prayer. There are also various online resources for individuals to use if they want to reflect on the Stations at home; click here for one I really like.
There are three things to remember if you are going to pray the Stations on your own. First, it is important to include a time of meditation at each Station, a time during which you reflect on what happened to Christ. Second, it is important to try to see ourselves mirrored in Christ and to consider how each Station may have application in our own lives. Ask yourself, what might this Station have to teach me today? What is it saying to me? What is it helping me to see or do differently? And finally, there are no set prayers that must be said at each Station. You can use prayers that you are familiar with (Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be), prayers someone else has written for reflection on the Stations, or prayers you come up with yourself. This gives you the freedom to interact with the Stations, to make them part of your own prayer practice.