Big in Lent, but available all year
Although most of our churches have the Stations of the Cross on their walls all the year round, the devotional exercise ‘doing (or praying) the Stations’ tends to receive more emphasis in Lent. This is because it is a way to organise our meditations around ‘the way of the cross’ (another title for the Stations, Via Crucis in Latin, or Via dolorosa, the grievous journey).
In the days before travelling became possible for everyone and not just the rich, it was a way of going on pilgrimage without leaving your own parish church; nowadays it might remind us of donning a VR headset to enter a different reality. Your imagination can take you to the place, make you one of the crowd, help you to understand what was going on. It is a sentimental journey in the best sense; like in St Ignatius’ Exercises, you are trying to harness your senses and your sentiment to deepen your appreciation of what is going on, from the moment when Jesus steps onto the moving pavement of Roman imperial law, through the crucifixion and his agonising last hours, to the final moment when his poor body is lifted down from the cross and entrusted to Joseph of Arimathea to be placed in the tomb.
The Church has many devotional practices apart from the official Mass celebrations and the Daily Office, and the Stations of the Cross are one of these. They are approved of, but not part of the liturgical worship of the Church. Some popular devotions are very old, some much more modern; the Counter-Reformation was a rich source of them. Many devotional practices are linked to particular feasts : penitential processions in Lent (very important in Spain), processions for a local saint on his feast day, specific pilgrimages (Montserrat, Levoca). Processions to honour Mary, or as part of the celebration of Corpus Christi used to be common, years ago, and some people are trying to revive them. But the Stations of the Cross have never gone out of fashion or needed reviving.
Franciscans and the Stations
Like all the best Catholic traditions, there are different stories about how, when and where this particular devotional practice began. Retracing Christ’s steps, as nearly as they could be traced, in Jerusalem, is the obvious first version. Then it seems to have developed (mid-fifteenth century onwards) as a series of outdoor shrines in sequence, varying considerably in number. There is definitely a link with the Franciscans,which makes complete sense, given the Franciscan emphasis on the Passion and responsibility for the Holy Places, along with a gift for making religion accessible and memorable; they are also responsible for cribs. The order cannily acquired a Pope-sanctioned monopoly to install them inside churches in 1731, and at this point the number of stations was also fixed at fourteen. British bishops were allowed to bypass the need to involve a Franciscan in 1857, presumably because there were not enough Franciscans in the UK at the time, and the right was extended to other bishops in 1862.
Genuinely popular devotion
As a devotion, it is much loved. Of all the pious exercises connected with the veneration of the Cross, none is more popular among the faithful than the Via Crucis (Directory on popular piety, 131). The fourteen pictures, surmounted by crosses, line the nave or aisles in every Catholic church and many others. Many outdoor versons survive, some even in Britain, as in Aylesford Priory in Kent, so that there is actually an element of physical travel, even if brief. Occasionally there is a fifteenth station, for the Resurrection, but usually they start with Christ before Pilate and his condemnation, and end with his body being laid in the tomb. When the number was fixed, so also were the scenes, though there is (and clearly always has been) some local variation.
Changes to the line-up
Some people are dubious about some of the Stations, because not all the elements are narrated in the Gospels. Only eight of the Stations have exact Gospel references. Pope Saint John Paul II introduced the ‘Scriptural Way of the Cross’ on Good Friday 1991, which he then used many times, and this is the version that Pope Benedict XVI endorsed and promulgated in 2007. There is also a ‘New Way of the Cross’ popular in the Philippines, though not yet officially recognised. These new versions are intended either to bring the narrative closer to the Gospel narrative or to allow for more emphasis on certain aspects of the Passion, but I think they are missing the point, and there is no rush to exchange the traditional Stations for the new version. After all, we do have the exact Gospel narrative read out to us repeatedly in Holy Week, but the traditional Stations of the Cross are a folk retelling of the story of the Passion. This is one of the things which gives them their value; they do not limit the narrative, but try to consider the events of Good Friday in a warmer, more human way.
A way to tell the story effectively : Stations 1 to 3
This is reflected in the classic story-telling techniques we can see in the narrative of the Stations, and especially in the non-Gospel elements. The narrative starts, as I said, with Jesus stepping onto the Roman judicial process like a conveyor belt. His fate is literally sealed by the authorities, and he sets off on a quest which will end with his death. He collects the cross in the second station, a crucial token or symbol, and the overwhelming presence in the background from now on. The third station : he falls, for the first time. This fall is nowhere in the Gospel narrative; in the Stations, Jesus falls three times (stations 3, 7 and 9). Of course he does; this is a story, and the hero is doing something amazingly hard and difficult. His suffering has to be made manifest. Story elements very often come in threes : three sons, three princesses, three bears, three pigs, three aspects of the wolf-grandmother in Red Riding Hood (ears, eyes, teeth). Three temptations in the desert; three denials (and later, three declarations of love) by Peter; and now three falls, so that we realise how heavy the cross is, how tired the Lord is, how near to death and no chance of rescue and escape.
Assembling the group : Stations 4 to 6
At the fourth Station, Jesus meets his mother. The canonical objection to this is that it is out of sequence, because Our Lady is mentioned as being present at the foot of the cross, but here this encounter is nearer to the beginning of the story, because it is so important and it emphasizes how unable to help everyone is, even the person who loves him so much. Her grief strengthens ours.
The fifth station is Simon of Cyrene being compelled to help Jesus (Mtt 27.32, Mk 15.21, Lk 23.26). John’s Gospel does not include this detail; indeed, he stresses that Jesus went out ‘bearing his own cross’ (Jn 19.17). Simon is the classic passer-by who is roped into the story; he has come in ‘from the country’, he has no idea what’s going on, he is constrained to help, he would rather not be there, but you don’t argue with the Romans. As countless sermons and indeed commentaries on the Stations have said, Simon is Everyman; he represents us, and we aspire to do freely and lovingly what he was forced into.
So here is a male helper; now we have the sixth station, and we need to balance the story, we need a female helper. The sixth station is Veronica, who comes up of her own volition and wipes Jesus’ face. We know nothing definite about her at all; she may well be pure invention; but she has a valuable role in the story as a representative of all the ministering women who are taken for granted in the story of Jesus’ life and death. For me, this is one of the real values of the Stations of the Cross. They put some (even if only archetypically) female representation back in the story. Here is Veronica, identified at various times with the woman with the haemorrhage, the wife of Zacchaeus, or even Martha of Bethany. She wipes Jesus’ face, covered in sweat, blood and tears. One theory suggests that Veronica was invented as the back-story of the vera icon (see what the syllables did there), the piece of cloth, to encourage more pilgrims to see the miraculous relic. I don’t think the image on the cloth is the most important part of this story; I think the more important message is the compassion and love shown by the action. But Veronica loses her place in the Stations in the papal rewrite and in the Filipino version.
Halfway : Stations 7 and 8
The seventh station is the second fall. Repetition without change, so the story is darkening towards the climax. Even with Simon’s help, Jesus is too weak to keep walking securely.
The eighth station is when Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, a meeting in Luke’s Gospel (23.28ff) though not in the others. The women are weeping for Jesus, but he warns them to weep rather for themselves and for their children. Luke gives a similar warning by Jesus on three separate occasions : he weeps over Jerusalem as he approaches it (19.41f), and some days later warns those listening to him of the coming fall of the city (21.21f), this second time again with a particular female emphasis (‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days’ (v.23) – and how can we not be reminded of those poor women in the attacked maternity hospital in Mariupol).
Moving swiftly to the end : Stations 9 to 14
The story has speeded up now that the cast is all assembled. The ninth station is the third fall, and by all the rules of story-telling, this means that the end is coming. By the next station, we are in the setting for the last scene, and events follow swiftly. Jesus is stripped (tenth station), he is nailed to the cross (eleventh), he dies (twelfth), he is taken down (thirteenth) and laid in the tomb (fourteenth). These are the traditional stations, a sequence of actions (or pictures) rather than words, and the women are there, prominently, in four of them. In three of them, the woman is in the very title of the Station.
The fourth one I would add is the Thirteenth Station, where Jesus is taken down from the cross, because traditionally his body is brought down and given into his mother’s arms, as in the classic Pietá. The awkwardness of the pose is part of the point; you can’t put a grown man comfortably on the lap of his aging mother, but of course she would want to hold him. If you bear in mind the relative sizes of the figures, it is fascinating to see how different artists have tried to solve this problem. Mary is an almost looming figure here, bigger than the body of her son.
Writing the women out of the picture
So there are many women present and crucial in the traditional line-up of the Stations. People praying the Stations will find others like themselves, even the women; this is a genuinely popular devotion, reflecting the (whole) congregation as well as the crowd in Jerusalem that day. The net result of both the rewrites, however, is to reduce the incidence of women. In the new stations, only the meeting with the women of Jerusalem is kept in; and Jesus is shown in the Twelfth (Filipino Eleventh) Station entrusting Mary and John to each other. Otherwise it’s all man-to man encounters, with Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate and so on. This is the same pattern as in the Gospels, where Jesus is unusual in being happy to speak and spend time with women. It always makes the apostles uncomfortable (cf. Mtt 15.23), one reason why the women hover on the edges and do not come forward until the men have all gone away.
…but they were there
We know that the women were there. You have to read between the lines of the Gospels and pick up every casual reference, but it is clear that Jesus’ group of wandering scholars and hangers-on included several women, even if we hear almost nothing about them. Until the end, that is, when Matthew, Mark and Luke all remind us of their continuing presence : Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. (Matt 27.55). These women had followed Jesus and ministered to Him while He was in Galilee, and there were many other women who had come up to Jerusalem with Him. (Mark 15.41). But all those who knew Jesus, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance watching these things. (Luke 23.49). John names the four women around the cross, but keeps his cast small. We have already noted his omission of Simon of Cyrene.
These are not just a few women, they are many, even ‘many other’, so we have a substantial female presence here in Jesus’ life and work, doing all the background stuff that everyone takes for granted. Luke explains much earlier that there were women in the group, indeed an essential part of the group : the Twelve were with Him, as well as some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities : Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s household manager Chuza, Susanna, and many others. These women were ministering to them out of their own means (Luke 8.1-3). Luke notices women more than the other Gospel writers, and I know it’s only pious tradition, but I do wonder whether it’s because he was a doctor, and so possibly slightly more observant and less hidebound, possibly also aware of the value of observing and recording as he went along. Presumably, as well as paying for everything, they have also been doing the washing, the cooking and all the other things included in ‘ministering’, but we only rarely hear of them speaking or doing anything out of the ordinary, except when Jesus takes their part, as he does when Mary of Bethany chooses to sit at his feet rather than doing some more ministering.
I think one reason for the enduring appeal of the Stations of the Cross is the (restored) presence of the women in the story. They stay present in the story as long as they possibly can, helped by their unimportance and relative invisibility. They cannot give any comfort beyond that of love and prayer, but they are determined to do that. They hang about, unable to go away, even after Jesus has died; when Joseph of Arimathea gets permission from Pilate to bury the body, the women are still there even after he has finished and gone :[He] departed. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre (Mtt 27.61; Mk 15.47). The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and saw the tomb, and how his body was laid; then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments (Lk 23.55f). They leave only when they have to go and prepare the things they will need to lay out the body, and to observe the sabbath rest day. Then they hurry back even before first light. We know what happens after that. Jesus appears to the women and changes their mourning into dancing, as the psalm says (29/30 v.12, that wonderful resurrection psalm). They have earned their place in the Stations of the Cross. Long may they keep it.
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