How many times did Jesus fall on the way to the cross?
If you said “three,” you know your Stations of the Cross. The Stations of the Cross are a popular Catholic devotion, especially during the Lenten season. There are 14 stations in all. They depict three falls of Christ: at the third, seventh and ninth stations.
14 Stations in 18th Century
However, the stations we know today developed gradually from around the 14th century until 1731, when Pope Clement XII ordered the number of stations set at 14. (Prior to that, there had been various Stations of the Cross, ranging from 7 to 37 in number.)
Some of the current 14 stations are scripturally based, such as the first station: Christ is condemned to death by Pontius Pilate; and station five: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross.
However, the three falls depicted in the current stations are not found in Scripture. Over the history of the development of the Stations of the Cross, a related devotional practice developed known as “The Seven Falls.” These “Seven Falls” were especially popular in Germany and the Netherlands. In German, they are called “Sieben Fussfälle Christi.”
Special Number ‘Seven’
In church history, “seven” is a special number. There were seven days in the creation story; there are seven sacraments; and there are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Seven is traditionally considered the number of completion and, in many sources, of perfection.
There are also the Seven Sorrows (Dolors) of Mary, another devotion that is popular during Lent. (The feast of the Sorrowful Mother is on Sept. 15.) And the Seven Falls are often tied to Mary’s sorrows. Finally, there are also some sources that cite Proverbs 24:16 as a possible foreshadowing of Christ’s falls: “though the just fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble from only one mishap.”
The most famous of these “Seven Falls” were carved in Nuremburg around 1490 by the sculptor Adam Krafft. They were commissioned by Martin Ketzel who had made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and followed the Via Dolorosa in Old Jerusalem.
Ketzel even returned to Jerusalem in 1468, to get exact measurements of the distances along the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. For example, in the depiction we know today as the Fourth Station — Jesus meets his mother (the first fall at Nuremberg) — Ketzel listed this as being “200 paces from Pilate’s house.” The Seven Falls led to the church in Nuremberg.
The Seven Falls carved by Krafft are:
- Jesus falls the first time (our third station)
- Jesus meets his mother (our fourth station)
- Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross (our fifth station)
- Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (our sixth station)
- The second fall (our seventh station)
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (our eighth station)
- Jesus on the ground under the cross (our ninth station)
Not all are ‘Falls’
Immediately noticeable in reviewing these seven falls is that they are not necessarily all “falls” as we depict them in our stations. However, the devotional sense of that time — which focused greatly on the sufferings Christ endured — listed each of these as falls. The idea was that Jesus grew faint upon seeing his mother crying, or as Veronica wiped his face. And this momentary weakness or added sorrow was considered “a fall.”
What is often called “the Descent from the Cross” was also seen as a fall in this tradition — and depicted by Krafft in the Nuremberg church — because Jesus’ body was lowered to the ground.
And the fall that shows Jesus beneath the cross belongs to a tradition that says the cross fell forward as Jesus hung upon it, fell to the ground and had to be raised up again from the ground.
Even though we today may not recognize the Seven Falls in our 14 Stations of the Cross, they might still be found there. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, in referring to the tradition of the Seven Falls that, “… It is supposed that the other four falls coincided with (Jesus’) meetings with his mother, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the women of Jerusalem, and that, in these four, the mention of the fall has dropped out whilst it survives in the other three which have nothing else to distinguish them.”
Whether or not Jesus fell at all on the way to the cross is probably not the main point behind these devotions. The point is that we all have fallen, many times in our own journey of following Jesus. These stations and falls remind us of this.
Aids in Prayer
At the time these devotions became popular, most of Europe was illiterate. So the use of visual representations of Christ’s Passion became aids for prayer. They also helped fix the Passion narratives of the Scriptures firmly in people’s minds.
Interestingly, the most important part of each Station of the Cross (and in most representations of the Seven Falls) is not the scene it shows, but the cross itself. Each station today must have a cross attached to it. Even if nothing else is present, the cross alone makes it a valid station. This is because the purpose of the devotion is to remind us of the redemptive sacrifice of the Cross, through which Christ won our salvation.
That is the true focus of our meditation on the station, just as it is the focus of our Lenten journey. As we follow the Stations of the Cross, we also follow the path by which our salvation was won: from Christ’s sufferings, falls and death, to his rising up again to bring eternal life.
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; udayton.edu; vocationsnetwork.org; The Voyage of the Cross — The Spiritual Pilgrimage of Jerusalem; katholische-kirche-naumburg.de; Stations of the Cross — Rethinking the Tradition; and The Stations of the Cross: An Account of Their History and Devotional Purpose.