John Gayford looks at how the Stations of the Cross help us to enter with devotion into the
sufferings of Our Lord
Early Christians of the first century went on Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visited Jerusalem and followed the supposed route that Jesus took on his way to the cross. They would share this with others when they returned home. But pilgrimage to the Holy Land came to an abrupt end with the siege of Jerusalem which fell to Saladin in 1187. Thereafter various crusades allowed selected pilgrims back from time to time but the devotion had to take place in secret or at Dawn to avoid friction between pilgrims and the local people. Thus it was much simpler to have a domestic pilgrimage back home. Those returning from a crusade wanted to revive the memory and pass their devotion on to others. Both St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and St. Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226) had strong devotion to Stations of the Cross. In 1217 St. Francis was made custodian of the Holy Land even while the Crusades were continuing. This gave the Franciscans a special role in promoting devotion to the Stations of the Cross and they saw it part of their mission to promote the devotion, (which continued in the catholic counter reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries.) It was not until 1490 that 14 became the customary number of stations. Up to then the number had varied from 5-30, with 7 becoming a popular number often called “the seven falls of Christ”. Pope Innocent XI in 1685 gave the Franciscans the right to establish Stations in church grounds called ‘Calvaries’, popular in France but spreading to other Catholic European countries. Pope Clement XII gave the right to all Catholic Churches in 1732 with indulgences for the dead but still left the Franciscans in charge to supervise it with the consent of the dioscesan bishop. By the end of his life in 1751 the Franciscan St. Leonard of Porto Maurizio had set up over 500 Stations of the Cross including one in the Colosseum of Rome. St. Alphonsus Liguori (1692-1787) adapted his version of the Stations of the Cross for the Redemptionist Fathers. It was a devotional version with meditations on the traditional 14 Stations, translated into modern languages and still remains popular. Here the crucifixion of Jesus is not blamed on the historical characters of the drama, but on us as individual sinners. Thus at the first station we hear: My loving Jesus, it was not Pilate; no, it was my sins that condemned you to die. We walk with Jesus sharing his sufferings, and acknowledging the mental pain of his mother Mary. All stations are marked with a cross and it is this rather than the picture or tableau which gives it official status.
Many different manuals have been assembled to lead devotions of the Stations of the Cross with some composers producing their own libretto. Others are by famous people, including Popes and Anglican Bishops. Manuals have pictures for each station some of which may be reproductions of stations from famous cathedrals and churches. Most are for private meditation. At the beginning there is an opening prayer which may state any special intention and possibly guidance. We are reminded that this is a pilgrimage of faith either private or in church with other people. As each station is announced, ‘We adore you O Christ and praise you. Because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world’ is repeated by all. In public Stations of the Cross there is a liturgy in which all may join. A Cross and Acolytes may lead the path perhaps with genuflection before each Station begins. Verses from the Stabat Mater Dolorosa can be sung between each station in Latin or English (At the Cross her station keeping: English Hymnal 97). Alternatively other music can be used or there can be dignified silence. Where possible kneeling is recommended at the twelfth station (where Jesus dies on the Cross). We are helped to identify with the action of each scene depicted, by Biblical quotations or readings. Prayers and poems can be added. The Way of the Cross is reflected in each person’s life; complete with personal sorrows but with hope in the loving Jesus who trod this sad path for our redemption. There is growing enthusiasm for a 15th Station by ending this devotional exercise before the Blessed Sacrament where the risen Lord is greeted. To end with Christ buried in the tomb except on Good Friday does not leave us on a positive note. It would be a serendipity if on special occasions – pilgrimage or on retreat – Stations of the Cross ended and allowed time for prayer and meditation before Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is scheduled.
Devotion to the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ is a devotion of the Orthodox but their churches do not display Stations of the Cross. Lutherans often use the Stations of the Cross in a devotional book with pictures opposite prayers. In the Anglican Church the Stations of the Cross is not an Anglo-Catholic monopoly. Some Anglicans would prefer to call this ‘Walking the way of the Cross’ and there are booklets published, with pictures often of the Biblical version of the Stations. Alternatively pictures can be hung up in church in Lent. Individual Methodists have found the Via Crucis a useful spiritual meditation and have produced their own format and created art to go with it which they want to share with others.
Travelling the Way is not always communal and audible. Individuals may travel alone and I have heard someone in an electric wheelchair, the only sound being the motor of their chair between stations. There is still a demand for Stations of the Cross on certain occasions but the idea of having this liturgy every week on a Friday may no longer be a reality.
Outdoor Stations of the Cross are often a feature of a pilgrimage where there are facilities. Stations of the Cross should be more frequent in Lent, Holy Week and especially a feature of Good Friday where there may be ecumenical participation. In some countries there may even be live enactment of the tableaux. It is now possible to sit in front of the computer and be conducted round the Stations with selected musical accompaniment.
Some of the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross stations are legendary not Biblical and are as follows: 1. Christ condemned to death. 2. Christ receives the cross. 3. His first fall. 4. He meets his Mother. 5. Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross. 6. Christ’s face is wiped by Veronica. 7. His second fall. 8. He meets the women of Jerusalem. 9. His third fall. 10. He is stripped of his garments. 11. He is nailed to the cross. 12. Christ dies on the cross. 13. His body is taken down from the cross 14. His body is laid in the tomb. There is a proposed 15th station to demonstrate this is not the end by the resurrection of Christ which follows.
There is a demand for Biblical Stations of the cross and this format now has Papal approval and is as follows: 1. Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. 2. Jesus betrayed by Judas and arrested. 3. Jesus condemned by the Sanhedrin. 4. Jesus is denied by Peter. 5. Jesus is judged by Pilate. 6. Jesus scourged and crowned with thorns. 7. Jesus takes up his cross. 8. Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross. 9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. 10. Jesus is crucified. 11. Jesus promises the kingdom of heaven to the repentant thief. 12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other. 13. Jesus dies on the cross. 14. Jesus is laid in the tomb. Again there may be added a 15th Station; this devotion has become more popular with recovery of understanding of the paschal Mystery including the death of Christ with his resurrection.
Some images of the traditional Stations of the Cross are skilfully carved in wood or cast in resin which may be painted or bronzed. A wooden base or frame (which can be quite elaborate) may be used to set off each station. More rarely there may be mosaic or stone carved images. For small chapels a number of stations may be grouped. There are wealthy donors, but there can be no doubt many stations which adorn the naves of Churches were lovingly given by groups of relatively poor subscribers. There are some famous Stations of the Cross as in Westminster Cathedral carved in stone by Eric Gill, completed and dedicated in 1918. The personal life of Eric Gill produced controversy and petitions to have them removed were submitted.
In 1879 Franz List wrote Via Crucis as a choral work, while Marcel Dupre in 1931 wrote a musical meditation and Peter Maxwell Davies in 1969 wrote Vesalii Icones. These and other works were not written to be performed during recitation of the Stations of the Cross but as concert works.
By the later part of the 19th century most Roman Catholic churches had their walls adorned with Stations of the Cross and Anglo-Catholic churches were following suite. When you enter a church and see Stations of the Cross on the walls of the nave, you know this church is of a Catholic tradition. It is right to call the praying of the Stations of the Cross a Sacramental of the Church.
We each have our cross to carry in life and we can pray to our loving redeemer to strengthen us in life’s sorrows, be they physical, psychological or spiritual. The sun may not have risen in our life but Jesus has risen and goes before us leading us to the heavenly city. We need his guidance, strength and grace to follow. We pray that each station will place us on the path to resurrection with our Blessed Lord. Jesus by his holy Cross has redeemed the world.
Suggested Further Reading
– Burnham, A. (Compiler) A Manual of Anglo-Catholic Devotion. Canterbury Press. Norwich. 2001.
– Coterell, S., Gooder, P. and North, P. Walking the Way of the Cross: Prayers and Reflections on the Biblical Stations of the Cross. Church House Publishing London. 2019.
– Vincent, C. The Way of the Cross in Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages edited by Vauchez, A. and translated into English by Walford, A. James Clarke and Co. Cambridge 2000.