The Stations of the Cross, one of our most beloved devotions, chronicles the last few hours of the life of Jesus Christ and is a way for the faithful to literally walk with the Lord in prayerful gratitude, wonder and awe.
Whereas history does not provide us with specific evidence of the very first visual (artistic) articulation of the Stations of the Cross, we might well imagine the origin of this popular devotion occurring as our ancestors in the faith walked along the very “way of the cross” in the streets and roads of Jerusalem and pondered in their hearts the great mystery of the passion and death of Jesus.
I like to imagine that perhaps it was Mary herself, in the company of the unnamed women and children of Jerusalem, the apostles and Simon of Cyrene with his sons, Alexander and Rufus, who, after the crucifixion, walked and rewalked the very steps they took in the company of Jesus on that first Good Friday. I wonder if they didn’t pause, periodically, to recall the memory of that very day and their great love for Jesus — and over time, others joined them along this Via Dolorosa, accompanying them with their own memories and prayers, sharing together a mutual love and affection for the presence of Jesus in their lives — yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Many of our most treasured religious and secular rites and rituals, customs and traditions, have uncertain origins; but what we most certainly and assuredly know about the Stations of the Cross is that its origin is literally in every step of Jesus en route to the sacrifice upon the cross. The practice of ritually and artistically categorizing the footsteps of Jesus along the way to Calvary is equally obscure and its history is subject to great debate. But we are confident that our current 14 Stations of the Cross have evolved in tandem with the church’s revelation of the presence of the living Christ in our midst, in our own here-and-now.
The placement in our churches of 14 visual articulations of those final hours in the life of Jesus inclines us to recognize and remember an essential aspect of our Christian faith; namely, that our salvation is linked to the suffering of Christ who, even as he bore the torment of hostility and fear of those who hoped to eradicate his presence on earth, he persevered toward God’s divine will with nobility and courage, with tenderness toward the most marginalized and hopeful reliance on the emerging strength of others.
The placement of 14 images of the last hours of the life of Jesus in (or upon the grounds) of a church or a chapel, allows us to sense the magnitude of this sacred narrative and to discern its ongoing relevance in our lives. Without these visual cues, these sacred works of art, we are impoverished and risk forgetting the immensity of God’s great love for the world.
That there are five traditional Stations of the Cross that depict instances not recorded in sacred Scripture (there is, in fact, no scriptural record of Jesus falling three times along the route to Calvary nor are there exact passages citing the meeting of Jesus with his mother or Veronica) is not a worrisome matter for a devout and sincere Catholic. Rather, those particular stations reveal the extent of the Christian imagination and how it is rooted in the art of logical, poetic and compassionate inference.
The inclusion of three stations, wherein Jesus falls along the way, reveals many things that we know to be true: the crushing weight of life and all its complexities can cause all of us to stumble along the way and we then rely on others (like Simon) to assist us. The Catholic imagination delights in recognizing how our journey in life is intimately known to Jesus.
That we believe Jesus met Mary along the way to Calvary feels only natural to the believing imagination as we know, from sacred Scripture, she is there later at the foot of the cross; would not any of our own mothers demure from accompanying us along our own way of the cross? Mary’s presence reveals what we know to be true among women who are full of grace: they walk with us and for us, even when we believe we can’t see them.
Of course, Veronica acts as a counterpoint to Simon; as Simon was ordered to assist Jesus, we have a family legend that recalls the power and beauty of freely and naturally offering one’s assistance to someone in need. Veronica recalls for us a beautiful truth; we have all, at one time or another, enjoyed the sweet relief of someone freely and wonderfully coming to our aid, comforting us with a moment of surprising relief.
During the season of Lent, the church invites us to enter more mindfully into the passion of Jesus, to set aside a bit of time wherein we can more fully recall the courage and conviction of our Lord’s love of us, particularly as this was made manifest on that first Good Friday.
The Stations of the Cross that we find in our cathedral and local churches, act as catalyst to remember the strength and dignity, the resolve and determination, the complete and overwhelming goodness of Jesus, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Whenever we actively pray the Stations of the Cross, either alone or in the company of fellow believers, we extend a great legacy and tradition of the church, linking our prayers and footsteps with the very prayers and footsteps of Jesus, our Blessed Mother, the apostles and disciples, the saints and the martyrs, and countless generations of faith-filled men, women and children.
Fr. Neilson, a member of the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré (Norbertines), is assistant professor of Art at St. Norbert College.