The way of the cross

Another well-known and popular devotion is the Way of the Cross, or Stations of the Cross. This particular devotion to the passion of Christ is quite old in the Church but as a formally standardized devotion was not regulated until quite recently.

Tradition has it that the Blessed Virgin herself used to visit the various holy sites connected with her Son's passion and that there she would meditate on God's love for man.¹ Certainly it was a characteristic of the Church in Jerusalem to visit and remember the holy sites. This is evident from such sources of Egiria's Travels. Pilgrims from all over the Christian world came and were impressed by this.

Already in the fifth century, a set of ''stations'' had been erected in Bologna.² Later, during the 12th and 13th centuries, returning crusaders brought with them a devotion to the holy places. When in the mid-fourteenth century, the Franciscans gained control of the holy places, they began to promote devotion to them and to the passion of Christ. Accordingly, they set up stations in all of their Churches, chapels, and monasteries throughout the world.³ Thus, the devotion spread, although it varied from place to place, even the number of stations varied from five to more than thirty. Finally, in 1731, Clement XII standardized the number at 14 for the entire western Catholic world. The Stations as we have them today are:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death.

  2. Jesus shoulders his cross.

  3. Jesus falls the first time.

  4. Jesus meets his Mother.

  5. Jesus is helped by Simon.

  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.

  7. Jesus falls a second time.

  8. Jesus speaks to the Women.

  9. Jesus falls a third time.

  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments

  11. Jesus is nailed to the Cross.

  12. Jesus dies on the Cross.

  13. Jesus is taken down from the Cross.

  14. Jesus is placed in the Tomb.

 

Of these, 3, 4, 7, and 9 are part of the tradition of the Church. The rest is taken directly from the Bible. They follow the progression from Jesus' trial to His burial. In the Orthodox Church, a similar meditation on the Passion of Christ is found on Holy Thursday evening in the service of the Passion Gospels.

In actual practice, nothing is required in this devotion except that one move from one station to another an meditate in general on the Passion of Christ. No specific prayers are provided officially, and it is not necessary to meditate on the actual stations themselves. Various collections of meditations and prayers are published in order to guide the faithful in their meditations, however, as always with such pious literature, some are considerably better than others. Most have in common however, a versicle and response between each station.

 

V. We adore Thee, 0 Christ and we bless Thee:

R. Because of thy Holy Cross, Thou hast redeemed the world.

 

This is also almost universal at public readings of the stations. These versicles set the tone for the service or meditation, keeping it from becoming a pointless, morbid, or sentimental meditation concerned only with Christ's sufferings. These versicles put the sufferings in perspective as a means to an end, the salvation of the world. Rather than a sentimental lament is a solemn adoration of our long-suffering Lord who so loved the world as to voluntarily submit to His Passion for our sakes. In spirit it is most similar to the line from the Kathismata of Holy Thursday evening, “We fall down in adoration of Thy Passion, O Christ'' which is repeated three times. We realize that His Passion is the means to our salvation and this realization colors our devotion. It is the same way with the Way of the Cross in the West. Some complain that the Way of the Cross ends with the entombment and not with the resurrection of Christ. This is like complaining that we do not sing ''Christ is Risen'' on Holy Thursday. We are Christians, it is understood that we experience everything in the light of the Resurrection. We know certainly that Christ is indeed, risen. If not for the resurrection, we would not be concerned with the passion of Christ at all. His Passion was not an end in itself, it was the means to an end.

 

This devotion then is a healthy, balanced meditation on Christ's passion and His sacrificial love for mankind. There is nothing in it contrary to our Orthodox faith. Certainly some published prayers and meditations on the stations can be found objectionable, but others can be found which are excellent. One needs to exercise judgment and taste when acquiring or using such printed helps.

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