The Way of the Cross

One of the traditional Catholic practices very dear to our hearts is the Way of the Cross[1]. Besides the Stations of the Cross in our chapel, we have another set in a long corridor leading to the chapel. Throughout the day and night, it is not unusual to see one of the nuns quietly praying this wonderful devotion. On Fridays, the whole community makes the Way of the Cross together before the Blessed Sacrament exposed on our altar.

This devotion is an effective way to grow in an intimate, personal union with Our Lord, and to steep oneself in the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ and the wisdom of His Cross.

Here is an overview of the history and meaning of this traditional practice.

The Way of the Cross is a “pilgrimage in spirit” to Christian holy places at Jerusalem.  The origin of this practice in honor of the sufferings of our Redeemer can be traced to the Holy Land itself.  From the earliest times, Christians there reverently marked out the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus would have walked on His way to His crucifixion.  These have been places of pilgrimage for people of many nations ever since the days of Constantine in the 4th century, when Christianity was made legal. 

An ancient Christian tradition asserts that after Jesus ascended into heaven, his Mother Mary, while still living in Jerusalem, used to visit the scenes where Christ’s Passion had taken place.   (A similar loving and sorrowful remembrance takes place in our own time when on the anniversary of the 9/11 twin towers’ tragedy, family and friends gather at the site in New York City to commemorate the death of their loved ones who perished on that terrible day.)  As an aside, from very early on, Christians named the day of Jesus’ death “Good Friday”,  not terrible Friday, because of the great good of eternal salvation that has come to us through the Passion of our Redeemer. 

Christian history through the ages has many references to the fact that devout followers of Jesus have wanted to commemorate His Passion by a prayerful “walk” with Him on the path to Calvary.  For instance, St. Jerome (who died in 420 A.D.) tells us that by his time, there were already crowds of pilgrims from all countries who used to visit the holy places of Jerusalem!   There is, however, no direct evidence as to any set form of the Way of the Cross at that early date.

It was not only Christians of Jerusalem who wanted to replicate the scenes from Jesus’ walk to Calvary, but at quite an early date, Christians in other countries who were unable to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, soon found a way to satisfy their devotion. An example of this can be found at the monastery of San Stefano in Bologna, Italy, where a group of chapels were constructed as early as the fifth century, to represent the more important shrines of the Way of the Cross. These chapels may be regarded as the origin from which the Stations as we now have them developed. 

Several pilgrims, it is true, who visited the Holy Land during the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries and left us written accounts, mention a "Via Sacra", (Holy Way) which was a settled route along which Christian pilgrims were conducted, but there is nothing in their accounts to identify this with the Via Crucis, as we understand it today.

The earliest use of the word Stations, as applied to the accustomed halting-places along the Via Sacra at Jerusalem, occurs in the narrative of an English pilgrim, William Wey.  William visited the Holy Land in 1458 and again in 1462, and left a description of the manner in which it was usual to follow the footsteps of Christ in His sorrowful journey.  It seems that up to that time it had been the general practice for pilgrims to begin at Mount Calvary, and then walk prayerfully toward the Antonia, the Roman fortress where Jesus was condemned by Pilate.  To our mind, this would be like walking the Stations “backward.” By the early part of the sixteenth century, it was more common to walk it as Jesus did, beginning at Pilate's fortress and ending at Mount Calvary. 

By the fifteenth century, Stations of the Cross were being constructed in several places in Europe, and this has continued even until our day where most Catholic Churches have the Stations of the Cross. So we see how Christians have wanted to demonstrate their love for our Savior and their gratitude for the great price He paid for our eternal salvation, by honoring the Passion of Jesus in this way.  Today, thanks to Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Passion of the Christ”, there is renewed interest in this form of Christian devotion.  Notice too, how Gibson emphasized the presence of the Mother of Jesus in the film.  Christian mothers can relate particularly well to the 4th Station of the Cross.  Mary appears in several scenes of the Way of the Cross.  She is His Mother, helpmate, the handmaid of the Redemption, and as His faithful follower she walked with Him all the way to His death and burial.  "Near the Cross of Jesus there stood His Mother...." (John 19:25)

Those of us who are serious about being followers of Jesus will realize instinctively that the Way of the Cross is not just about the historical Passion of Jesus.  The Way of the Cross is our story too.  One writer has said that Christ will be in agony until the end of time.  Colossians 1:24 tells us: “In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church.”   The Stations of the Cross can help bring this scripture passage home to us.  Following Jesus along the Way of the Cross, we realize how His Passion continues in the hardships and sufferings of our lives, as we take up our daily cross and follow Him in the midst of the challenges of a world filled with deceptions and temptations to sin.  (Gal 2:19-21; I Peter 2:22-24 and 3:13-17 and 4:12-13, etc., etc.)

As we make the Way of the Cross, we look for the inward meaning of each scene.  We ask: Jesus, show me how this relates to my life.  Show me how this relates to the life of the Church in our time.  As we gaze at Jesus in each station, we can be present to the way in which the power of Jesus’ love and His “yes” to the Father, transformed the suffering of each station.  Then consider how love for God and neighbor can transform the suffering of your life.  From the Passion of Jesus and the Sorrows of Mary we can learn that our suffering need not be mere “meaningless misery”.  When offered in union with Jesus and Mary in the Passion, it can become a precious sacrificial gift offered God for the salvation of souls who may be on a path to perdition.  St. Paul of the Cross said that in this school of the Passion, we learn the science of the saints.  Praying the Stations of the Cross and uniting our own sufferings to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, releases more of the transforming power of Christ’s love into our own hearts, and the hearts of others!

When the Stations are prayed reflectively, particularly in union with the Sorrowful Heart of Mary, one can enter into intimate contact with Our Lord in each scene.  This quiet meditative walking with Jesus along His way to the cross can leave a lasting impression in one’s heart.  In this way, His Passion begins truly to become our spiritual strength in the sufferings, frustrations and hardships of daily life.  We can also become deeply aware of how His suffering continues in all who bear a more intense share in His Passion: the ill, the elderly, the bereaved, the unemployed, the poor, those in war-torn areas, those locked in abusive relationships, victims of violence and so on.

Another way to make the Way of the Cross is to sit silently in prayer with a Way of the Cross booklet and simply honor and love Jesus in each scene.  Remembering the price He paid for your redemption, you can allow your heart to respond to Him in deep love, commitment and reparation. 

Another powerful way of praying the Stations is to choose one scene each day and frequently call it to mind, using this memory of the Passion of Jesus as a means to stay in loving contact with Him throughout the day.

“All I want is to know Christ in the power of His resurrection,
to know how to share in His sufferings
and be transformed into the pattern of His death!”  (Phil 3:10)

[1]  Also commonly called “Stations” of the Cross, from the Latin Statio, which means to stand at a halt.  Although Christian piety added some scenes not recorded in the bible, even these have a meaning both in the lives of believers now and in terms of the meaning of the sufferings of Christ.  For instance, the traditional Stations have three scenes in which Jesus falls.  There is also the meeting of Jesus with His Mother.  And finally, a non-biblical scene of the holy woman Veronica giving her veil to the suffering Christ to wipe His bloody face.  (This last scene may have its origin in the “Cloth of Oviedo” which modern research indicates may have been the cloth placed over the head of the dead Christ before He was transported to His tomb.  One can read more about this, as also the Shroud of Turin, on the following websites:  The Sudarium of Oviedo   or  The Shroud of Turin