The Stations of the Cross: Introduction

Today, I’m beginning a two-week devotional series based on a biblical version of The Stations of the Cross. The point of this series is to help you reflect upon the meaning of the death of Jesus, so that you might experience the grace and love of God more profoundly. This collection of devotional posts is a new version of a series I wrote a couple of years ago.

As near as I can remember, I first became aware of The Stations of the Cross while on vacation in San Francisco, California. As I visited St. Mary’s Cathedral, I noticed around the sanctuary of the church a series of visual reminders of Jesus’ last hours. These seemed to encourage the Catholic faithful in their personal devotion. I did not at the time realize the irony of my discovering The Stations of the Cross in San Francisco, a city named after St. Francis, the Catholic saint whose order had much to do with the development of devotion associated with The Stations of the Cross. Nor did I realize back then that virtually every Catholic church uses some form of The Stations of the Cross.

I became more familiar with The Stations of the Cross, also known as The Way of the Cross, or Via Crucis (Latin, way of the cross) or Via Dolorosa (Latin, way of grief), when I began going on retreats that met at Catholic retreat centers. All of these places for prayer featured a series of scenes that depict the passion of Christ. Often, I saw people slowly walking along The Stations of the Cross, pausing at each station for quiet meditation and prayer.

Some of the stations at the Serra Retreat Center. The one to the right is #6, Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus.

A few years ago, I decided to follow The Way of the Cross at the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu, California (which, was situated, ironically, within a stone’s throw of the homes of Brittany Spears and Mel Gibson). Whereas almost all Catholic churches include the stations within the their place of worship (called the “nave,” Protestants would say the “sanctuary”), the Serra stations were outside in an aromatic grove of Eucalyptus trees. As I walked The Way of the Cross that day, I found myself reflecting with more intensity and emotion upon the events of Jesus’ death.

The exact origin of the devotional use of The Stations of the Cross is not entirely clear, though it is associated with Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the early Christian centuries. (For a detailed online history, see “The Way of the Cross” in The Catholic Encyclopedia.) Those who were able to walk along the path Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion were deeply moved by this experience. Yet, since the vast majority of Christians were not able to go to Jerusalem, The Way of the Cross enabled them to engage in a mini-pilgrimmage of sorts, whereby they could focus on the key events of Jesus’ last day.

In the Middle Ages, this practice got wrapped up with the granting of indulgences (remissions of temporal punishments for sins for which we have been forgiven). The whole indulgence scene became quite messy and was in fact one of the major reasons for the Protestant Reformation. Thus, it’s not surprising that Protestants didn’t maintain the tradition of walking The Way of the Cross as an act of devotion. That practice seemed to include way too much theological baggage.

When I first followed The Stations of the Cross, I related readily to about half of the scenes. But the other half seemed odd to me because the statues depicted unfamiliar events, including: three falls of Jesus, an encounter between Jesus and his mother, and an encounter between Jesus and a woman named Veronica. These stations were not derived directly from Scripture, but rather from ancient church tradition. Though I wasn’t offended by the traditional nature of the unfamiliar scenes, since they were in no way contrary to Scripture, I found myself more drawn to the seven stations that were clearly based on the biblical record. I am, after all, a Protestant at heart, one for whom tradition can be helpful, but Scripture is the main source of my spiritual devotion.

Well, as it turns out, Pope John Paul II seems to have shared my concern about the lack of biblical foundation for the traditional Stations of the Cross, though he often celebrated these without hesitation. In 1991, John Paul II instituted a new series of fourteen Stations of Cross, each of which was based on Scripture alone. The chart below shows both the traditional and the revised stations (with Scripture references; these Scripture references come from the 2004 version of the Pope’s Stations of the Cross. The 1991 version had the same basic headings, but some different biblical texts.):

1. Jesus on the Mount of Olives
(Luke 22:39-46)
2. Jesus, betrayed by Judas, is arrested (Luke 22:47-48)
3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71)
4. Peter denies Jesus (Luke 22:54-62)
1. Jesus is condemned to death
5. Jesus is judged by Pilate
(Luke 23:13-25)
6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (Luke 22:63-65; John 19:2-3)
2. Jesus takes up his cross
7. Jesus takes up the cross
(Mark 15:20)
3. Jesus falls for the first time
4. Jesus meets his mother
5. Jesus is helped by Simon the Cyrene to carry his cross
8. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross (Luke 23:26)
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls for the second time
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
(Luke 23:27-31)
9. Jesus falls for the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
10. Jesus is crucified (Luke 23:33, 47)
11. Jesus promises his Kingdom to the good thief (Luke 23:33-34, 39-43)
12. Jesus on the cross, his mother and his disciple (John 19:25-27)
12. Jesus dies on the cross
13. Jesus dies on the cross
(Luke 23:44-46)
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to his mother
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb
14. Jesus is placed in the tomb
(Luke 23:50-54)

Four stations of the cross in the sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church.

Several years ago, some folks at Irvine Presbyterian Church, where I served as pastor, decided to offer The Stations of the Cross as a devotional experience for Holy Week. We opted for the Pope’s biblically-based version of the Stations. My wife, Linda, offered to paint fourteen watercolor pictures that illustrated the passages upon which the revised stations are based. These were displayed in our church sanctuary during Holy Week. People were invited to come, to read Scripture, to reflect, and to pray. For many members of my church and community, this was a precious time of drawing near to the Lord in anticipation of Good Friday and Easter. (For the past several years, I have offered the use of Linda’s paintings for churches and Christian ministries without charge. Her paintings have appeared in literally thousands of places of worship on six continents. They are permanently installed in a number of churches. If you would like to use her paintings, all I ask is that you contact me and ask permission.)

For the next two weeks, I will offer a 15-part series of devotional reflections on The Stations of the Cross (including 14 stations plus an Easter postscript). I’ll “walk” through the stations with you, one station per day. At this pace we’ll complete the fourteen stations on Holy Saturday (which will feature the last of the stations). I’ll include the Scripture passages for each station, some personal reflections and prayers, and my wife’s paintings. My hope is that this online version of The Way of the Cross will enable you to enter into a deeper understanding and experience of the passion of Jesus, so that you might be ready to celebrate Easter with new joy and freedom.

P.S. from Mark

You my be interested in a blog series I have written called: Why Did Jesus Have to Die? Roman, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives.

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  • Paul

    Thank you –  looking forward to the series

  • Angela

    Mark, I find your writings blessed, and if I may, I would like to share your series with my friends on my facebook page 

  • Anonymous

    Of course you may. Thanks for asking.