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.

#WomenWereThere

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.

 

 

 

Hannah and the first Magnificat : 1 Samuel 2

Hannah’s Magnificat

The Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd (Tuesday of Christmas week this year) is the Canticle from 1 Samuel, and although you will never have sung it before as a Sunday psalm, the words are oddly familiar. It is solidly reminiscent of the Magnificat, Our Lady’s chant of joy when she goes to see Elizabeth, which we also don’t use as often as we might, but it is much earlier in date. It is another chant of joy by a mother, but this one is voiced by Hannah, one of the great Mothers of Israel.

from left to right, Hannah, Penninah with children, and Elkanah
Women’s words?

I have to put in a disclaimer here, because of the culture in which the Bible was written and its great age.  It is most likely that the words of both Hannah and Mary herself have been mediated through a male writer, and we have no way of knowing what is authentically women’s words and what is artistic recreation, but as I have said before, there is so little even ostensibly by women in the Bible, that we have to grasp at what we can get. 

Women's voices singing
women singing, a rare picture

So I am taking both Hannah’s words and Mary’s in good faith as women’s words.  Traditionally, her mother taught Mary to read, but we don’t actually know whether she was literate, and it’s very unlikely that Hannah was.  So someone else must have written the words down; but they are given to us as women’s words, in the same way that Shakespeare’s heroines speak women’s words.

Familiar words, unfamiliar speaker

As I say, the most striking thing about Hannah’s words is how familiar they are, even to Christians who barely know Hannah’s name and story.  Part of the narrative is prescribed reading just once in the three-year cycle of Sunday readings (Holy Family Year C).  It finishes before Hannah’s prayer/song, but tells only a small part of the story even so.  I know I’ve talked of Hannah before, but only briefly, as one of a group (Women’s voices in the Bible).  Here I’d like to pursue her further, as she has a great story, which is worth studying.

Who is Hannah?

Hannah is one of the two wives of Elkanah.  She has no child.  Her barrenness is her defining characteristic at this stage in the story.  Her co-wife is Penninah, who has several children, but even so Elkanah prefers Hannah. He goes up to Shiloh once a year, to make a sacrifice to God.  Elkanah hands out parts of the sacrifice to all his family, so Penninah and her children all get some of it, but Hannah gets only one portion, because she has no children.

Hannah sad and Penninah just possibly flaunting

Penninah taunts Hannah, and this happens year after year.   Hannah is reduced to tears and understandably does not want to take part in the meal;  Elkanah indicates one possible aspect of the problem when he says to her with quite stunning insensitivity, ‘Hannah, why do you weep?  Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

Childlessness in the early Old Testament

With all its limitations in approach (it’s always solely the wife’s fault or problem), the Bible in its early stories is surprisingly aware of the anguish that can be caused by involuntary childlessness.  From Eve’s desire for another son after the death of Abel, to the unsavoury jealous byplay between Hagar and Sarah, one fertile, one barren, and the similar  arguments between Leah and Rachel, which can only have been exacerbated by their being sisters, children are seen as not only God’s gift, a sign of favour which can be given or withheld, but the greatest gift, justifying almost anything. 

Sarah and Hagar
Sarah and Hagar : Sarah by now has a child, but the comparison is still fertile versus barren

Lot’s daughters make him drunk so that they can have children by him, because there is no other man available.   Tamar wants a child so much that she disguises herself as a prostitute and leads her father-in-law astray (she has twins).  These women will do anything to get a child.  There is a poignant moment in Genesis 35, where Rachel is delivering Benjamin :  ‘In her difficult delivery the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; you have another son here”. 

Rachel and Leah
Leah with child and Rachel without

Rachel dies, and is mourned with great grief by Jacob, but there is no suggestion that the child was not worth all her suffering in her own eyes; her only fear is not having a son.  Obviously, there is the practical viewpoint that a child will look after you when you are old and weak, but there is more to it, as a child-bearing woman in those days often didn’t make it to being old and weak.

Hannah prays for a child

So Hannah, like Sarah and Rachel, knows that only God has the power to give her the son she craves.  After everyone has had dinner, she slips away from the hall, and goes to the temple.  Eli the priest is sitting there by the door.  Hannah weeps and prays, and then makes God a promise : if he will give her a son,  she will give him back to God for the whole of his life, and his hair will never be cut (a symbol of this dedication).  Then there is a fascinating little exchange between Eli and Hannah.  She is praying under her breath; her lips can be seen to move but her voice cannot be heard.  Eli ‘therefore supposed that she was drunk’, and upbraids her harshly.  Hannah replies in a most dignified and impressive way.  ‘And Hannah answered and said, No, my lord, I am a woman of a sorrowful spirit: I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but have poured out my soul before the LORD’ (King James 2000 Bible. Some of the other translations are more modern and colloquial, but the dignity is constant).  She explains that she has been speaking from her grief and resentment.   Eli does not apologise (look at the situation and who is speaking to whom here), but to his credit, he does answer respectfully and kindly : ‘Go in peace, and may God grant what you ask’.  Interestingly, she doesn’t tell him what she is asking for, and he now behaves with tact.  She goes back to the hall, her sadness relieved.

Hannah praying with grief and resentment

Samuel is born
Hannah with Eli (and the Ark of the Covenant)(top), then Hannah with Samuel (and a midwife)

The family returns home, Hannah conceives and bears a son, Samuel.  The following year, she decides not to go on the annual pilgrimage because Samuel isn’t weaned yet, but she explains to her husband that when he is, she will bring him to Shiloh and present him to God in the temple, and leave him there.  Elkanah says, ‘Do as you think fit’.  We are told nothing about Hannah’s feelings, and it’s difficult to imagine them.  She has longed for this child, but he will not be hers to keep even as briefly as usual.   A ‘weaned child’, even in those days, is still quite little, easily able to fit on a lap (cf. Psalm 130/131:2). At this age, she gives Samuel up.

Hannah a real woman, not just a representer

In a way, it’s not Hannah’s feelings which are important here, because we aren’t thinking about her as an individual but as a representative of the heroic qualities she demonstrates.  It’s just like in fairy stories, where again, the longing for a child is frequently an engine of the plot (Snow White, Tom Thumb, The Gingerbread Boy, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin and so on).   None of these stories dwells on the yearning of the would-be parent(s).  The situation is stated and we move on into the story.  Hannah’s story takes us very quickly into the next stage.  She longs for this child so much as to beg God for him, and at the same time she promises to give him up.  Hannah is ready to give her son to God if she can only have a son to take away the reproach of her childlessness.  This does not make her a self-obsessed monster lacking maternal feeling, it is to show first how good God is to her when asked, and second how generous he is (after giving up Samuel, Hannah goes on to have five more children, three of them sons).  But what I find fascinating is the way the story is told and the tension between the events as they unroll and the human nature of the woman.  Some of it we can glean from Hannah’s words, some from her actions and the way they are recounted.

look how little he is
Le style, c’est la femme

Unusually, we are given all Hannah’s words in direct speech.  (I regret that we don’t have any answer to Elkanah’s first question, but it’s probably just as well.)  We hear first what she says to God, where she is simple, passionate and direct as she makes her vow. She is full of grief and resentment, and she says so.  This is a real relationship with God, person to person, which can cope with the stresses of reproach and challenge.  Then Eli questions her and she answers him, again with simplicity and directness.  Later she tells Elkanah what her plans are in relation to Samuel, and he agrees without any cavil. After Samuel is weaned, she takes him up to the temple, with various gifts.  There is no evidence that Elkanah takes any part in this trip; Hannah is an impressively independent woman in context.  She goes to Eli and reminds him, again with great simplicity and directness, of their previous meeting.  Then she says the crucial sentence twice. ‘Now I make him over to the Lord for the whole of his life.  He is made over to the Lord.’ (1 Sam 1:28)’.  Then there is one more performative sentence (There she left him, for the Lord;  alternative translation in several other versions, There he worshipped the Lord) and then there is her Magnificat.

Hannah offering Samuel to the Lord
Hannah’s heroic sacrifice

I find the simplicity and understatement of all this extremely moving.  We have learned that Hannah is a woman of dignity and self-respect, and she is doing this because she has promised, not because anyone has made her.  She is a strong woman with agency.  We know that she loves her son.  In another very touching detail later, we discover that each year when the family comes back for the annual sacrifice, she brings Samuel a new little tunic, having worked out how much bigger it needs to be this year.  There is so much in that tiny detail, and you can imagine the love that would have been woven into the cloth and sewn into the seams.

Two women, two Magnificats

Hannah’s prayer starts, like Mary’s, with a declaration of God’s might. She quotes the psalms (God is a rock, there is none like him), and moves swiftly to a celebration of his power to turn everything upside down.  Here the sequence is as in Mary’s Magnificat: we move from a statement of God’s power to his crushing of the powerful and raising the weak, the sated going hungry and the starving having their fill, the raising of the poor and humbling of the rich.   Mary’s words are more individual and powerful.  She is talking about what God has done for her, now, in this time;  Hannah’s words are more general (and more repetitive), as she describes what God does and has done repeatedly through history.  She also has one specific couplet which only makes sense if you know the context :’ the barren woman bears sevenfold,/ but the mother of many is desolate’.  It comes in as another example of God’s reversal of the current order, but it is chilling.  Hannah’s Magnificat is an Old Testament version, compared to the pure redemptive NT joy of Mary’s.  Jesus refers to the barren only once, and on the way to the Crucifixion, where he speaks to the women of Jerusalem, and it’s a passage to show how dreadful things will be : ‘The days are coming when they will say,’Blessed are the barren” (Luke 23:29).   This is a topsyturvey again, but a fearsome one.

Hannah’s Magnificat : form

We do not use all Hannah’s words in the Responsorial Psalm for December 22nd, because it is even longer than Mary’s Magnificat (and we omit parts of that, when we use it as a psalm), but we use all the parts which chime with Mary’s later version.  We have the first four lines on God’s greatness, then the six-line stanza about turning things upside down, and the later lines which continue the same theme.  It comes out as a psalm of four stanzas, a six-liner followed by a four-liner, twice.  The Response is tweaked to emphasize the similarity between the two Magnificats : Hannah’s Response as prescribed is ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord, my Saviour’, given as v 1 of the psalm but in fact that is simply ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and the reference to a Saviour is absent.  Mary’s first lines, on the other hand, are ‘My soul magnifies the Lord,/ and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour ‘(Luke 1:46f), so we are definitely pushing the parallels here.

Mary speaking
Mary rejoicing in God her Saviour
Giving it a tune

Setting it to music was difficult, but I think mainly because I would have liked to be able to do it so much better.  Setting women’s words is a rare privilege for me, but there are various essential limitations when you are writing a tune for a Responsorial psalm, especially for a weekday.  It can’t be too difficult to grasp or to sing.  Technically, this one has unequal verses, which means the tune needs to have room to expand and contract.  It seemed to fall naturally into a Handelian sort of shape, but the problem with that is that Handel is so much better at setting joyful women’s voices than anyone else (except Bach), so it’s embarrassing.    There is some laughing in the tune (verse 1), and at one point the tune itself has to turn topsyturvey because the words need it to go up when the rest of the verses take it down (end of stanza 3).  And I had to change the Response, because I first thought it started on an unaccented syllable (‘My’), but that didn’t work with the shape of the verse ending, so I had to allow the ‘my’ a certain stress.  It felt right after that; Hannah is a strong woman, and her words have a characteristic directness.  So I wasn’t satisfied with it when it was done, but at least it now has a tune and can be sung.  And I had a chance to find out more about Hannah, and write about her, an early Christmas present I had not expected.  Because she was worth it, definitely.  Happy Christmas.

crib scene in illuminated capital
the joy of a baby….and music as well

 

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020 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.