The devotional prayer practice of Stations of the Cross (or the Way of the Cross) is ubiquitous during Lent in Catholic parishes around the U.S. Stations of the Cross emerged as a way of doing a “Jerusalem” pilgrimage for those who lived a ways away from Jerusalem, and simply couldn’t make it to that city for a “real” pilgrimage. As you may know, not every “station” or stop is directly attested to in Scripture–and, the Stations memorialize the last day of Jesus’ earthly life, an incomplete picture of the salvation and redemption he brings for each of us, for the world, through his ultimate victory over death in rising from the dead. Pope St. John Paul the Great helped us fill in these gaps by offering us some [awesome!] complementary practices.
First in 1991, he shared a Scriptural Way of the Cross based on the four Gospels. Then in 2001, he approved an updated list of popular devotions that included the “Stations of the Resurrection” or “Way of Light”–a step-by-step way of entering into the events of the Risen Jesus’ life on earth from the moment of resurrection to Pentecost.
Now you might be thinking–sigh, do we really need more types or different versions of the Stations of the Cross? Answer: maybe. See here’s the reality, for many of us the Stations of the Cross have become so routine that the utter shock of the events has been lost. Maybe a little romanticized, or just simply domesticated. As human beings, its natural that when we hear something that’s violent, shocking, scary, and painful over and over again, we turn away from those feelings or become numb to them.
I was reminded of this in a powerful way years ago, as a catechist leading my class of 3rd to 5th graders through the Stations of the Cross in our parish church. It was Lent, and my co-catechist and I had prepared the kids for this for a few weeks–that we were going to enter into Jesus’ journey to death, his sacrifice for us. We were going on our own “pilgrimage”–leaving our classroom and heading over to the church sanctuary, it would be more quiet than usual, leaving silence for the Holy Spirit to speak to each of us.
So, we’re praying through the Stations of the Cross and at the Tenth Station my co-catechist is leading, explaining the image on the wall, and talking about Jesus being stripped of his clothes. One of the kids tugged on my sleeve to get my attention, so I bent down to hear what he had to say. “Miss Colleen,” he asked with a very concerned look on his face, “did they rape Jesus after they stripped him?” I did a mental (maybe physical too!) gasp and whispered back to him, “no, but they did really want to hurt him.” He nodded approvingly as if this made sense, and we moved on…continuing our class pilgrimage through the Stations of the Cross.
I’ll never view the Tenth Station the same. Almost every time I encounter it, I remember my shock upon hearing my student’s question. There’s the painful reality of our fallen world–that this child knew what rape was (or at least knew the word and that there was a logical association with stripping of clothes).
And then there’s the shock of entering into the true depth of understanding in the child’s question. How many times had I passed through this Station, simply scratching the surface of the stripping of Jesus’ clothes as merely a practical preparation for final crucifixion? While my student was wrong in the sense that we have no historical or traditional evidence that Jesus was raped, my student was painfully, shockingly correct in being stunned and horrified by what was happening to Jesus. Without knowing words like “humilitation” or “domination,” he was genuinely angered and concerned about what would happen to Jesus. Unlike me, he was not numb to the true gravity of this moment of contemplation. He was not avoiding how truly fallen we as human beings are.
As we enter this final week of Lent, this Great and Holy Week, as it is often called, you may be praying the Stations of the Cross for the last time this year. If they’ve become routine, without arousing genuine emotion, without shocking you, then I encourage you to mix it up. Approach this holy pilgrimage in a new way, imagine watching live–as if you did not know how the story ends. Imagine hearing this for the first time and feel the weight and drama of it all. If needed, try the Scriptural Stations of the Cross and see if something new strikes you. Whatever you choose, make this devotion your own and personally experience what it meant for Jesus to take our sins to the cross and give us complete, joyful newness of life and the ultimate assurance of victory over death.
a version of this originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com