Devotion to Christ’s passion grew over the centuries

By | April 8, 2011

 

Mostly, though, in the first centuries of the church, there were few representations of the cross itself — some of the earliest being the jeweled (crux gemmata) crosses representing the five wounds of Christ or showing Christ without his cross.

By the time St. Helen (Helena), mother of the emperor Constantine, began to build churches on the holy sites in Jerusalem in the fourth century, corresponding devotion to those sites was developing among Europeans. The anonymous Bordeaux Pilgrim (333 A.D.) and St. Sylvia of Galicia (380 A.D.) wrote of witnessing devotional practices leading to and inside the Holy Sepulchre.

The Roman Empire ended with the sack of Rome in 476 (though the Byzantine Empire in the East continued to the 15th century). Germanic and Frankish tribes soon developed into early European kingdoms, which sought to recapture the glory that had been Rome. In church life, we see this in the establishment of the Holy Roman Empire (10th century), and the Crusades (the first in 1095), undertaken to recapture the holy sites in Jerusalem (marked by the churches Helen had established).

When Jerusalem fell to Muslim control in 1187, travel to the Holy Land became restricted. The Franciscans received custody of Jerusalem’s holy places for Latin-rite Catholics in 1335, and eventually secured safe passage to these sites for pilgrims. However, most people still could not travel to Jerusalem. Instead, starting in the 11th century, returning crusaders began to establish local shrines — called “stations” — devoted to the sites they had seen in Jerusalem, including the Via Dolorosa, or Way of Sorrows. These Stations of the Cross, supported by the Franciscans, soon spread across Western Europe.

In 1686, Pope Innocent XI granted the Franciscans exclusive rights to establish Stations of the Cross in their sponsored churches, but that right was extended to all churches less than a century later.

The spread of the Stations of the Cross continued, as did devotions and meditations upon all the sufferings of Jesus — from recounting how many times he fell to the instruments of his torture.

This time in Europe — especially corresponding to the time of the Crusades in the 11th to the 15th centuries — was a time of wars, famine and plagues. The Black Death spread across Europe in the middle of the 14th century, killing half the continent’s population (75 million) in just a few years. The famous Oberammergau Passion Play, which is enacted every 10 years, began to fulfill the village’s pleas and promise to God when a plague struck there in 1634.

The mystical writing of saints such as St. Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373) helped deepen the focus on the sufferings of Christ. The humanity of the dying Jesus — illustrated by paintings, statues, poems and hymns — offered comfort to people who were also suffering. As Fr. Gerard Sloyan, biblical historian, noted, “The Middles Ages in Europe were a time ravaged by wars, disease and famine and hampered by the ignorance born of illiteracy. … The specter of death was ever present. … People’s Christianity was real to them in the measure that they could conceive (of) Jesus Christ as sharing their suffering.”

It should also be noted that, while the Mass was in Latin during these centuries, popular devotions, such as the Stations of the Cross, were in the vernacular. This added to their popularity.

However, no matter how popular the focus on the sufferings of Christ, Christians have never lost sight of the cross as the place where redemption took place. It has become more common in more recent times to add a 15th Station of the Cross to the traditional 14. (Stations have ranged in number from five to 42). This final station is the resurrection.

The 10th century Anglo-Saxon poet, Cynewulf, also knew that the cross meant glory when he wrote — as from the cross’s perspective — the “Dream of the Rood (Cross).” In the poem, the cross — seen in visions as adorned with jewels, silver and gold — tells how it shared in a great hero’s passion and death, and then in his glory.

Eleven centuries later, as we follow that Stations of the Cross this Lent, we also honor our hero, Christ upon that cross, saying at each station: “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because, by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.”

Sources: “The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith;” The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; Catholic Encyclopedia, Dictionary of Catholic Devotions, The Modern Catholic Encyclopedia; “The Origins of the Stations of the Cross” at OSV4me.

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