The first station begins with Jesus' condemnation by Pilate, the Roman governor, and moves through Jesus' long walk to the place of execution to his crucifixion, his death, and his burial. Many of the stations are explicitly described in scripture (the condemnation, Jesus being given the cross to bear, Jesus' words to the women of Jerusalem, the aid of Simon the Cyrene in carrying the cross, his stripping, his crucifixion, his death, the removal of his body, his burial) while others are included that come from traditional sources only (Jesus' falling three times, Veronica wiping his face, Jesus' encounter with his mother).
The Stations of the Cross are encouraged throughout Lent, but especially on Fridays and most particularly on Good Friday.
Are there special days during Lent?
Since Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a tradition developed that involved cleansing the home of those food items that would be given up during the time of fasting—fats, oils, meats, sugars, eggs. The night before Ash Wednesday became known as Shrove Tuesday, shrove meaning confession. Many cultures, in anticipation of the long Lenten struggle, would have a time of rowdy excess in the days before Lent, ostensibly to consume all the forbidden food items. This is the source of most Mardi Gras celebrations, Mardi Gras meaning "fat Tuesday."
Different Christian traditions count the days of Lent differently, and many have special feast or fast days in the middle of the season. The six Sundays during Lent are not considered days of penance, since every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and therefore cannot be a fast day.
Nearly all Christian communities—even those that don't recognize Lent—celebrate Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter Sunday. On this day, scriptures tell of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, a story told in all four gospels (Mt. 21:1-11; Mk. 11:1-11; Lk. 19:28-44; Jn. 12:12-19). This is the beginning of Holy Week, the most central time of Easter preparations.
The Thursday of Holy Week is called Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means commandment. On Maundy Thursday, Christians remember Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples, at which he gave them his great commandment: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another" (Jn. 13:34). Many Christians remember Jesus' last meal by washing one another's feet, something Jesus did for the disciples (Jn. 13:1-17). After the footwashing, many churches strip the altar of candles, linens, and sacred vessels, and wash the altar. Some churches hold an all night prayer vigil from the time of the evening service until 9:00 the next morning, the time at which Christ was crucified.
The Friday of Holy Week is called Good Friday. Though it is the day of Christ's crucifixion and death, it is considered good because on that day God's love triumphed over the powers of sin and evil that had held the world in bondage. Christians honor this day with fasting and prayer. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus was crucified at 9:00 in the morning; from noon to 3:00 p.m., the sun eclipsed as Jesus suffered and then died. Many churches hold noontime services, and traditionally there is no Eucharist at that service. While crosses throughout the church building have been covered with purple cloth from the beginning of Lent, on Good Friday they are covered with black cloth.
The Saturday of Holy Week is often called Holy Saturday. It is a time of silence, waiting, mourning, and fasting. It ends at dusk, when the Easter Vigil begins. Christians gather in a darkened church, light the paschal fire, and begin the long worship service of recounting the salvation history from creation through the prophets and culminating in the work of Christ. The Easter proclamation—Christ is risen!—ends the time of mourning.
The time from Maundy Thursday until the evening of Easter Sunday are often called the Triduum—the three holy days of Jesus' passion, death, and resurrection. While Lent technically ends with the Maundy Thursday service, Lenten practices are continued until the Easter Vigil.
Kathleen Mulhern is managing editor of Patheos. She teaches in the areas of Church History and Spiritual Formation at Denver Seminary and blogs at Dry Bones.