Stations of the Cross

So I finally got to Stations of the Cross last night – I’ve been wanting to get to them since I was writing my thesis last year and realized that is was a devotional practice that could foster empathy. As I was on my way over, I realized it was not only the first time I’d been in this parish — it was the first time in.. oh.. at least 20 years, possibly 30. I had only the vaguest recollection of how it goes.

Because of the traffic, I got there just barely on time. I picked up a worship aid on the way in: The Way of the Cross, with text from scripture, copyright 1965, with an introduction explaining how directly it was inspired by the Vatican II teachings encouraging Catholics to engage more broadly with Scripture than we had before.

As I entered the sanctuary, I was dismayed to see both the new projection screens lowered and showing a reproduction of Jesus among the disciples. Oh no!! I thought. Surely they aren’t going to project the stations on the screen while we sit here and watch? We’re supposed to walk the way of the cross!

Fortunately, I was wrong; apparently the picture was projected simply to inspire meditation before we began. (Full disclosure: I loathe the increasingly common practice of using projection screens in liturgy for anything at all. This is largely a personal loathing; I have some idiosyncratic vision issues that make these things problematic for me. Thinking about it more dispassionately, I can see that in theory, this kind of usage has possibilities that open up the world of sacred art in the parish setting. However, if one is going to use it this way, one should configure the machine so that the bar at the bottom of the screen with all the various icons is hidden!)

A moment later, the priest processed in behind a teen boy carrying the processional cross, and a little girl carrying a candle. (The “candle in a jar” sort, that she could hold in both hands.) The priest was vested; the young people were not. We all rose, and began with the sign of the cross. He led us in singing (a capella) the introductory verse that was in our worship aid, to the tune of Stabat Mater, and then led us in the first station, as we stood in our places.

The observance for each station was as follows:
– Priest: Station N, (name of the station).
– Priest: We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you,
– All (genuflect): Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.
– Priest: reads a passage of scripture that describes, or is relevant to, the events of the station.
– All (kneel): read a passage of scripture from the psalms or prophets, that either points towards Christ’s sufferings or presents an emotional response to them
– All: sing the next verse, that moves us to the next station, while we process to it

I was relieved that we did indeed move from station to station, after the first one. The stations of the cross at my parish are bas-relief carvings of olive wood that show just a detail of the scene. They’re hard to see from a distance, so this was the first time I was really able to appreciate them. At each station, the boy with the cross stood next to it, while the girl with the lit candle stood under it, as we prayed.

At one of the stations, the priest interjected a little homiletic reflection between the descriptive passage and our response; otherwise, he kept strictly to the worship aid’s script. The response at the station for the death of Jesus was the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, instead of a passage from the psalms or prophets: that felt very right to me.

After the fourteenth station, there was one more verse to sing, during which we processed towards the altar. Then, the priest reverenced the altar, and we sang the first verse of “Were You There” as he processed out behind the cross and candle bearers.

The worship aid included a fifteenth station of the resurrection, for, as it explained in its introduction, Christ’s suffering and death only have meaning in light of the resurrection. But we kept to the traditional fourteen.

As people gradually dispersed — there were maybe 75 people there? all ages — I went back and sat by the last station to meditate for a few minutes. The pace had been a little brisk for my tastes, and I’d felt a little rushed. But when I saw the members of our parish’s hispanic community streaming in, for their turn to pray the stations in Spanish, I realized why! 🙂

At that, I was very surprised to find that it had only taken half an hour. I don’t know how long I’d expected it to take, but longer than that. Half an hour is short enough to be something you can do on the way to something else. I wish I’d realized that before; I think I’m going to suggest that they put that in the bulletin next year.

I found it unexpectedly moving to participate in this as a corporate devotion. There was something about being part of a (small) crowd of people following prayerfully along the way of the cross that was very meaningful. Catholic worship is holistic, involving the body as well as the mind and heart, and I’m always aware of that, but it’s usually an awareness that comes from within and is inwardly focused. Here, it was being one of a shifting, moving, standing, kneeling, singing, praying, crowd that focused my prayer; that, and the art of the stations themselves, which of course we each encounter in our own way.

I left the church feeling contemplative, and blessed. What a lovely transition into Holy Week.

Does your Christian tradition pray the Stations of the Cross? Is it a devotion that appeals to you? Is it something you regularly pray, or have in the past? Why or why not? Did you first encounter it as a child, or as an adult? In what context?

If you or your faith community do pray the Way of the Cross, what kind of worship aid do you use? What do you like about it? What do the physical stations look like in your church?

Please do share – I’m terribly curious, and this is a nice topic for a Holy Week conversation.

Updated to add: Here’s a video that uses the same worship aid that my parish uses.

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