Stations of the Cross : #WomenWereThere

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).

the full set

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.

Devotional practices

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
outdoor station

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.

Jesus falls three times
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.

outdoor station of Simon helping Jesus

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.

Veronica coming to help

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. 

another outdoor station : Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

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.

was ever grief like mine?

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.

Many women

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.


© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




The trees of the Lord drink their fill (Psalm 103)

The significance of trees

You could see the Bible as a narrative arc starting with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (N.B. two separate trees) in Genesis chapter 2, moving onward to the Tree of the Cross at the (nearly) end of the Gospels, and looking towards the trees of life in Revelation chapter 22, which are many, bear fruit twelve times a year and have healing leaves. Adam and Eve are ejected from paradise in Genesis 2 ff. because they have eaten of the knowledge tree and shown that they can’t be trusted to be obedient, and God is worried that they will next eat from the tree of life and live for ever (Genesis 3:22).  So trees are an integral part of the story right from the beginning.

Christ on cross superimposed on tree in Paradise
Crucifix, tree of knowledge, blond snake,  Adam and Eve. This image is mid-fifteenth century

We feel that trees are important, significant, mysterious; and we are only at the beginning of understanding how they work, and maybe even have systems of communication.   They can be enormous and mysterious, like the great Canadian redwoods and the African podocarpus, or smaller and familiar, like the fruit tree in our garden, but there is always something special about trees.  I feel that slogan about some watch or other is much truer of any tree; you don’t own it, you’re just looking after it for the next generation…..or several.

Trees in the Holy Land

There are only a few species of tree in the psalms, though there are more in the Bible as a whole (think of Noah and the ark made of gopher wood, which I imagine as having attractive stripes like some African woods, though I have no evidence for that at all, I think it’s probably based on Disney chipmunks).  When we think of the bible landscape, it’s not usually forested, though Lebanon is famous for, and identified with, its cedars.  It’s more sort of desert-like, dry and dusty, with lots of stunted bushes and not much shade.  One great thing about the old blockbuster bible films is that the makers were so reverent that they filmed on the spot or as near as they could manage, so our mental pictures are probably fairly accurate.  All the making the desert bloom and orange groves are of much later date.

Singing about trees in the psalms

But there are some trees in the psalms : olive, oak, fig, the mighty cedars, poplars (or maybe willows or aspens), date palms and other fruit trees.  I am sad to say that there are no terebinths mentioned in the psalms.  I’m not sure what sort of tree a terebinth is, but it is a lovely word.  There are references to forests and green valleys, trees near to water.  The psalmists wrote about their real world,  and they refer to trees both literally and metaphorically.  The very first psalm describes the just man as ‘a tree planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season’, but the leaves are described as never fading, so it’s a fantasy as well as metaphorical tree rather than a real one.  The real ones occur in the Creation psalms, and they are often invoked to demonstrate God’s power (and sometimes the strength of his wrath).

The just man…..and the wicked

The just man is like a tree, but so are the unjust, though the point of comparison there is that God will uproot them and burn them up. The wicked are triumphant and tower like cedars of Lebanon in Psalm 36, but then vanish totally and no trace of them is left when the just man next passes by.   I think there are two things going on here.  Trees are the biggest thing that grows, so we are impressed by their size and strength; they live longer than a man.  But when God chooses, he can uproot these mighty things by no more than his voice (the Lord’s voice shattering the cedar, rending the oak tree and stripping the forest bare, Ps 28).  God’s power is always mysterious and seen only in its effects.  This is one of the few things we can grasp about the Holy Spirit, as I said before, and the mystery adds to the effect (‘and no-one saw your footprints’  Ps 76).

God creates them and nurtures them, and he has the power to destroy them (his voice shatters the cedars as a divine punishment, Ps 104:33, the violence of the image paradoxically emphasizing the strength of the victim).  Destroying trees is something only God does.  Men may burn pieces of wood and branches, but only God is big enough to handle a tree.   When the wicked attack the great vine in Psalm 79, they burn it with fire, but retribution is swift, and they will perish at the frown of God’s face.  If a tree is strongly planted, with a safe water supply, only God can uproot it, as he does the wicked in psalm 51, ‘but’,  the psalmist adds with blithe self-confidence, ‘I am like a growing olive tree in the house of God’, so we are imagining one of those beautiful courtyards inside the house, green and pleasant.

..and women and children

The neutrality of the image is unusual (trees as both good and wicked men), and slightly surprising.  I think it is another consequence of the appreciation of trees as something much bigger than we are, and therefore hard to pigeonhole.  Both good and bad men can be compared to trees, but women never rank anything bigger than a vine (smaller, need something to lean on, good when they are fruitful, Ps 127).  Children are shoots of the olive, and we want them to flourish like saplings (Ps 143).

A vine can be as big as a tree, indeed can spread to fill all the available space (like Groot in the crisis in Guardians of the Galaxy, with a strong protective instinct leading to self-sacrifice; how myths recur).  The mighty vine in Psalm 79 covers the mountains with its shadow, overtops the cedars and spreads from sea to sea: this is the same vine as in Isaiah 5, but on a huge scale.  It represents the nation of Israel, and it sounds to be equivalent to Yggdrasil.  Maybe women should not repine at being limited to vine metaphors.

Yggdrasil tree with woven roots
Mighty vine with mighty woven Celtic roots

Practical uses of trees

Trees also feature in the psalms as habitats: the birds of the air nest in them,  but an altar can be an even better dwelling place (Ps 83), just as a tent is often the source of shade (Ps 26), because sometimes there aren’t trees when you need them.  Again, we need to read the psalms in their own context.  We think of tents as exotic or at least not a part of everyday life because we are used to trees; but in this desert land, tents are the norm, and trees are something special.  This is one reason why sacrifices are burnt: wood is precious as well as whatever you are sacrificing.  It takes time to grow; this is why a forest fire is shocking.  A man can last eighty years if he is strong (Ps 89), but trees can last much longer.  God can choose to uproot either, ‘swept away, green wood or dry’ (Ps 57).

Trees are valued for their fruit, their sap, their shade and all the things you can make from them : staffs, crooks, pipes, timbrels, two very important types of ark, Noah’s and Moses’.  People celebrate by carrying branches to the altar (Ps 117, and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem).  Jesus himself is very clear about what makes a tree valuable, pruning it together with God to make it bear more fruit.  ‘I am the vine and my Father is the vinedresser’  (Jn 15).  He is not happy when he comes across a figtree which bears no fruit (Mk 11, Mtt 21).  The idea of Jesus himself as fruit hanging on the tree of the Cross dates from at least the Middle Ages, considerably antedating ‘Strange Fruit‘, but our shock at that song ought to make us realise how much we have become habituated to the horror of the Cross.

Crucifixion scene on a living tree
Crucifixion on a living green tree

Death on the  Cross, the Tree of Life

Jesus’ cross as the tree of life is the central paradox which brings all the tree images together.  The Armenian cross (and remember Armenia was the first country to become officially Christian) always has buds on the end of the arms of the cross, to show life not death.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

It’s not the only cut wood with potential for growth in the psalms. ‘O gates, lift high your heads; grow higher, ancient doors,’ chants Psalm 23.  Like Ezekiel’s dry bones in the valley, something fixed and dead becomes alive and dynamic; it can move and stretch.  Resurrection is not limited.  We have just seen in the Pentecost liturgy the power of the Holy Spirit to bring things to life, and because of Jesus and Easter, we can add ‘again’.


I’ve given the standard Grail numbering of the Psalms in this blog, because giving alternatives took up so much room.  For US psalms, just add 1 to the number (not for Ps 1, obviously, but usually).


©Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.