Even though public celebration of the Stations of the Cross has been suspended due to COVID-19, private prayer in church or at home continues. A popular Lenten practice for centuries, the stations deepen our spiritual understanding of God’s merciful love.
Our present 14 Stations of the Cross have been used since 1731, approved by Pope Clement XII. The number has varied over time, with as few as five stations to as many as 43.
Our prayer focus has also varied. Some of today’s stations are not Scripture-based, but rely on sacred tradition. For example, Jesus’ three falls do not appear in Scripture. In 1991, St. John Paul II prayed 14 scriptural-based Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.
St. John Paul’s stations have been the focus of a Lenten talk first presented about 20 years ago by Norbertine Fr. James Neilson, professor of art at St. Norbert College in De Pere. He had been asked to lead the stations for the college’s students.
“I wanted to appeal to both the intellect and imagination of the students, with the intention of them widening their vision of the scope and magnitude of the last few hours of the life of Jesus,” he told The Compass.
The first thing Fr. Neilson asks in his talk is, “When did the Stations of the Cross start?” The answer: “The day after Jesus died.” This, he said, is when Jesus’ friends and followers retraced his final hours. Ever since, Jesus’ friends and followers have done the same.
At his presentation at St. Thomas More Church, Appleton, on Feb. 28, Fr. Neilson used art to discuss the Scripture-based stations. Along with traditional art — such as “Christ in Gethsemane” by Heinrich Hofmann (Jesus kneeling by a rock and looking to heaven) — Fr. Neilson added modern art to give new contexts.
For example, most of us visualize the betrayal by Judas as an embrace. Along with that in art, Fr. Neilson presented London sculptor Cornelia Parker’s “30 Pieces of Silver.” This contains 1,116 silver objects — like Grandma’s tea set — crushed by a steamroller and suspended at almost ground level in 30 groupings. Think about betraying someone for crushed flatware.
Then there’s Norman Rockwell, whose art we see at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Fr. Neilson offered Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” for the seventh station: “Jesus carrying the cross.” Rockwell’s painting shows 6-year-old Ruby Bridges escorted by federal marshals. In 1964, Ruby was the only African-American child at her New Orleans school when Louisiana was desegregated. Ruby is shown walking to school past a wall splattered with graffiti, including a racial slur and a smashed tomato.
“I use ‘surprising’ or ‘unexpected’ images to both excite the heart and mind and to introduce the idea of how familiar the stations can be to us,” Fr. Neilson said.
His choice for the first station — the “Agony in the Garden” — paired Hofmann’s work with a photo of a Marine weeping at a fallen comrade’s casket.
Each of us is used to stations we see in our churches. But, as Fr. Neilson teaches with his art presentation, we should reflect on whether we also see the Stations of the Cross around us each day — especially when we aren’t in church.
Do we see Christ’s agony in photos of the elderly in nursing care or the sick in hospitals? Do we remember Jesus stripped — the traditional 10th station — when we donate to a homeless shelter? Do we see the 14th station – Jesus is buried – in the TV images of coffins in Italy?
What station comes to mind when you hear derogatory remarks about refugees or see videos after a mass shooting? Which of Jesus’ last hours do we see when writing a check to a food pantry, or when you wonder how you can make a confession during times of pandemic?
The Stations of the Cross reside in our churches. But they also live around — and in — us. And we are not alone, even when alone. Near the end of his talk, Fr. Neilson showed Salvador Dali’s “Crucifixion of St. John of the Cross” that looks down upon Christ’s cross towering over the world. “How far is the distance between God and earth?” the priest asked. “Christ.”