Growing up Catholic, I was encouraged to talk to God, to eat Jesus’ body and blood in the form of a tasteless cracker and watered-down communion wine, and to confess my sins to the ready and listening priest. The Stations of the Cross were displayed in sculpturette form at the front of the church, showing a devastatingly suffering Christ carrying his destiny and submitting to it as the loving son of God. Still, that was about as much exposure as I got to the stations—unless I’d gone to the restroom or fallen asleep (both happened) too many times during CCD, aka Wednesday church school for Catholic young’uns.
But what do the fourteen Stations of the Cross really mean? I was raised Catholic, and I couldn’t tell you without a good bit of research. But why not honor my upbringing? Learn a little about what I was supposed to know by the ripe age of eight? My nana is probably pretty upset that I never got confirmed as a real adult Catholic, but maybe I can make it up to her seven years later. Here goes.
In short, the Stations of the Cross are a series of images that show Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. They also refer to the prayers Christians say when observing these images. Oftentimes the religious travel along a path in the church lobby where the images are displayed on the walls, stopping to pray and meditate on each one. The Stations of the Cross are also, more beautifully, known as the Way or the Way of Sorrows.
There are two versions of the Stations of the Cross: the one that sticks to scripture tightly, and the one that’s more popularly depicted in art and even churches. I bet you can guess which one we’re going to examine.
Jesus is Condemned to Death.
Not a very nice start, is it? But the Stations of the Cross aren’t exactly known for being sunshiny, and if you know anything about Christianity, you know that, in the human sense, things only get worse for Jesus Christ.
The Opening Prayer, Act of Contrition, goes like this:
O my God, my Redeemer, behold me here at Thy feet. From the bottom of my heart I am sorry for all my sins, because by them I have offended Thee, Who art infinitely good. I will die rather than offend thee again.
Then Jesus is condemned to death by mean ol’ Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judaea. Actually, maybe he wasn’t so mean—according to the gospels (and who knows how historical they really are, but let’s just get on with it)—according to the gospels, a wild, rowdy crowd of angry Jews forced Pilate into the decision. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. Others have painted Pontius as a jerk. Who can really know? Everyone’s got their own shady agenda at stake.
The prayer goes like this:
Leader of the Church: We adore Thee, O Christ, and bless Thee.
Everyone else: Because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.
In summary, “Thanks, Jesus. You really helped us out and got our sins forgiven with your bodily sacrifice.”
You’re supposed to be highly aware of Jesus’ suffering and that his suffering was for you. Even if you’ve had a rough childhood or even crappier adulthood, you’re supposed to understand that Jesus had it even tougher, so you should grin and bear what you have to deal with, carry your own cross, bear your own burden, etc.
Leader: Jesus Christ Crucified.
Everyone else: Have mercy on Us.
Leader: May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, Rest in Peace. Amen.
Translation: Please forgive us, Jesus. And let all of the dead people rest in peace.
Jesus is Given His Cross.
Jesus has accepted the cross, and he’s not so weak yet. He still has that peaceful, saintly glow going. Somehow, he’s not mad at God.
Leader: We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you.
All: Because by your holy cross You have redeemed the world.
(Thanks for the second chance, Jesus. Lord knows we’re all sinning away.)
Once again, we’re ultimately supposed to reflect on our own suffering and frustrations. Jesus is given this huge cross to bear, knowing he’s going to be nailed into it and held up wavering until he passes away. We’re instructed to remember our own childhoods—how we try to cast aside our problems (our own crosses) or try to get others to deal with them for us (so much easier, dude). We’re annoyed when we’re asked to do anything for other people, because we’d rather focus on ourselves. Unlike Jesus. As adults, we’re just as bad: we complain about the cross we bear and fail to notice that others have it way worse. In short, we need to quit feeling sorry for ourselves—Jesus had it worse and so do plenty of others. The low end of the scale of a crappy life may just be a bottomless pit.
The ending prayer is the same: Jesus Christ is Crucified, Have mercy, May the souls of the dead rest in peace.
Jesus Falls Down for the First Time.
At this point, Jesus is still looking pretty good. His clothes aren’t tattered or dirty, and even though he’s just fallen, his face is as peaceful as ever as he stares up into the Heavens, wondering when or if God is ever going to step in (deep-down knowing he won’t). Soldiers want to go home. The crowd’s tiring of how long this whole spectacle is taking. No one wants to even help Jesus get back up.
We reflect: it’s easy to give up when we stumble upon obstacles. It’s easy to drop the cross and say, “Someone else pick it up. I’m done.” Once again, though, this isn’t the Christly way. We procrastinate. We throw our hands up into the air. We say, “Smite me, oh Lord!” over bad traffic or a failed proposal at work. While Jesus just gets back up and marches along.
The third station of the cross is like an ancient get-up-and-go, inspirational, motivational, self-help speech. Try, try, again! If you fall, get up! And always get up one more time than however many times you’ve fallen. Keep going! You’ve got this! Because if Jesus could get back up on the way to his own crucifixion, you have no excuse. Science says this is true. Harsh, but can you argue with it? Not really. Turn off Netflix and get out there, you lazies.
Jesus Meets His Mother Mary.
Despite not allowing women to become priests or to hold many other offices, Catholics are kind of obsessed with Mary (Protestants often criticize this). But she’s the Mother of God! She birthed Jesus when she’d never even had sex before. Poor gal. Lady deserves a lot of credit, if you ask me (maybe the old Catholic in me is coming out, the girl who recited “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…” for many, many years).
Not to mention Mary’s there for the death of her son. People are yelling and screaming and cursing Jesus when he just happens to see his mom. She’s suffering, too, and this is calming to Jesus.
What’s the lesson to be learned here? For one, Mom’s got your back. For another thing, a lot of people do. When the crowd seems suffocating, look for the face you know, look for someone who can help you and love you—friends and family, mentors and guides. You don’t have to get everything right, and you’re not on your own. There’s someone there looking out for you, if you just scan the crowd. Isn’t that lovely?
Jesus Christ Crucified. Have mercy on Us.
Simon of Cyrene is Forced to Carry the Cross.
A man is pulled out of the crowd to help Jesus—he’s just taking way too long, trudging along under that heavy burden. Jesus’ eyes are downcast as the man helps drag along the cross.
And we reflect: how easy is it to give into the bystander effect and neglect to help someone when no one else in the crowd is? People have been beaten and even murdered in public because no one in the entire crowd felt brave enough to call 911 or speak up or interfere. It’s all too common, and unfortunately, it’s an easy habit to be one of many who simply doesn’t volunteer when volunteers are desperately needed. Simon does, though. He helps a complete stranger by bearing his burden for a while.
My Jesus, blest, thrice blest was he who aided Thee to bear the cross. Blest too shall I be if I aid Thee to bear the cross, by patiently bowing my neck to the crosses Thou shalt send me during life. My Jesus, give me grace to do so.
Veronica Wipes Blood off of Jesus’ Face.
Veronica pressed through to meet our Lord,
His streaming face a napkin to afford,
Lo, on its texture stamped by power divine
His sacred features breathe in every line.
Veronica helps out Jesus and gets a unique autograph from Jesus himself: the imprint of his face on her washcloth. Jesus is weakening when Veronica, another stranger, emerges from the crowd to help. She uses a piece of cloth to wipe away blood and sweat from Jesus’ forehead and face. Sure, this isn’t carrying the cross, but she’s helping in a way that she personally can. Imagine, too, that she isn’t emerging from a peaceful crowd. People are screaming and shouting, even hitting Jesus on his way through, and the executioners walk all around Jesus. Veronica’s more than just a little brave to step up, and she’s rewarded for this with quite the souvenir.
Once again, the lesson comes down to fighting the bystander effect: just because there’s a crowd of people not helping doesn’t mean you as an individual can’t step out and put out your hand.
Here’s a cool prayer for this station:
O Jesus, grant me tears to weep my ingratitude. How often have I, infatuated wretch,
turned my eyes from Thee and Thy sufferings, to fix them on the world and its vanities!
Let me henceforth be Thine without division. Stamp Thy image on my soul, that it may
never admit another love. Take possession of my heart on earth, that my soul may take
eternal possession of thee in glory. Amen, Jesus.
Just as Jesus stamps his face on the cloth, we ask for Jesus to stamp himself on our hearts. And that’s pretty sweet, isn’t it?
Jesus Falls Down the Second Time.
Jesus is really starting to look bad, and understandably so. He falls down again, walking along the Via Dolorosa (Rue de Sorrow), but struggles to get up and continue.
Once again, here’s a message to keep on keeping on, an ancient motivational speech in the form of a picture. Jesus feels like crap, but he keeps going, even though what he’s working towards is less-than-desirable. Jesus tells us, “Don’t despair over little obstacles or mistakes. Keep going, bro!”
One important thing about this moment that sets it apart from other falls is that Jesus is at the gate of Jerusalem, aka the gate of Judgment. This is at the intersection with one of the busiest streets in the old city, and it’s uphill. Can things get any worse?
Of course they can… Next!
Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem.
From the Gospel according to Luke:
Jesus turning to them said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us’. For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
What’s he even saying here? Shouldn’t he praise the women that cry for him for their great empathy? Turns out, no. Jesus is telling the women that their piety is straight-up too sentimental and wishy-washy. Life is going to get really bad—people are going to stop having babies and celebrate this (quite the prophet, isn’t he?) But life goes on—don’t ask the mountains to crash down or for the hills to bury you when suffering is just part of the whole deal. Jesus died for your sins, so don’t be such a baby.
Jesus Falls Down for the Third Time.
Jesus falls again, and he’s no longer peacefully gazing at the Holy Father above. Rather, he looks pretty downtrodden and exhausted. His journey is almost over, and he knows it.
Again, this station of the cross reminds us that though we fail—we’re dishonest, lazy, imperfect—we’ve got to keep going. We encounter the same problems over and over in our lives, and we’ll continue to face them, and we can only keep going. It’s our only option. Battling addiction? Keep going. Dealing with an earth-shattering break-up? Keep going. Major car accident? Get out of the car, ma’am. You can walk to the hospital! Dealing with all three of these in one week? Well, that’s life. C’est la vie. As the laughing Buddha said, “Life is suffering.”
Here’s one reflection offered by Catholic Online:
Help me think of the cross you carried. Help me continue to hope that I can make the changes in my life I need to. You didn’t give up. I can have the strength to get up again as well.
My Jesus, by all the bitter woes Thou didst endure when for the third time the heavy cross bowed Thee to the earth, never, I beseech Thee, let me fall again into sin. Ah, my Jesus, rather let me die than ever offend Thee again.
Jesus’ pain and struggle is an example. As he continues, we must as well. When we call out in prayer for him, he says, “Yeah, I understand. Believe me. But pick back up that cross.” Jesus continues on his death march.
Jesus is Stripped of His Clothing.
Jesus’ white robe must be pretty tattered and stained by now. People have been screaming terrible things the entire walk—it hasn’t been taken in a peaceful environment by any means—and now he’s being straight-up humiliated. Stripped bare.
The Global Catholic Network offers a long prayer in his honor. Here’s an important excerpt:
In your loving mind, dear Jesus, did You look up to the Father as You stood there on that windy hill, shivering from cold and shame and trembling from fear, and ask Him to have mercy on those who would violate their purity and make love a mockery? Did you ask forgiveness for those whose greed would make them lie, cheat and steal for a few pieces of cold silver?
Forgive us all, dear Jesus.
In other words, Jesus’ humiliation is in our name and offers us forgiveness for our various sins, even if we don’t deserve it. We have dirty sex, treat love like a toy, buy fancy stuff we don’t need, lie for our own selfish gain, cheat our way through life, and steal from others—but somehow we’re forgiven? Thanks to Jesus Christ’s suffering? As Salt ‘n’ Pepa say, “Whatta man, whatta man, whatta man, what a Mighty Good Man.” Yes he is!
Jesus is Nailed to the Cross—the Crucifixion.
Well, this one is pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Haven’t they all been fairly straightforward for that matter? Jesus has finally arrived, his cross has been planted firmly in the ground, and it’s time for the real suffering, the spectacle people have been calling for all day (jerks). They’re foaming at the mouths, screaming their faces off, happy and crazy. Those are some fat nails that they drive into his delicate hands and feet. So, really, what’s the lesson to be learned here?
We gang up on people. We’re jerks pretty often. We make people feel bad, we make targets out of those we dislike for petty reasons. We judge. We discriminate. Once again, we’re jerks.
The thing to remember is this: We’re brothers and sisters on this earth—we’re supposed to treat each other well. Not nail people to crosses.
My Jesus, by Thine agony when the cruel nails pierced Thy tender hands and feet and fixed them to the cross, make me crucify my flesh by Christian penance.
Here’s the section from the Bible on this moment (Matthew 27:37-42):
And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews”. Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right hand and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross”. So also the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the Cross and we will believe in him.”
In short, people mock him. Say, if you’re so holy, can’t you superman away and fling off those nails? But Jesus is performing this to forgive us for our Original Sin. That’s what they don’t quite get.
Jesus Dies on the Cross.
Jesus hangs on the cross surrounded by a wild crowd and in the center of two robbers, also hanging. And he forgives everybody in a snap. In three hours, he’s faded out.
Check out Matthew 27:45-50;54:
Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” That is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Imagine how crazy this would have been: You don’t believe in Jesus Christ at all. You’re really annoyed with him and glad to see him hanging. All of a sudden, a darkness falls over the land. He cries out to God, and you’re like, “Prove yourself. Show us something.” The earth shakes under your feet. “Oh man,” you think. “We really messed up. That’s the Son of God right there.” But it’s too late. It’s too late.
Jesus’ Body is Removed from the Cross—the Deposition or Lamentation.
Jesus is pale and cold when he’s taken down from the cross. Mary wipes away his blood and all the dirty from his body. She loves him. Here’s a super sad prayer if you’re feeling this:
Jesus, your lifeless body now rests in the arms of your sorrowful mother. As she received you into her womb in Nazareth, held you at Bethlehem, clung to you on the flight into Egypt, reached out to you in the temple at Jerusalem, and walked with you to Calvary, her arms now cling to you while her tears cleanse your crucified body. Lord Jesus, your mother’s pierced heart opened her arms to hold the suffering of our world. Pierce our hearts with your grace and pen our arms to others. Make us the bearers of your comfort and your healing in our bruised and broken world.
If only we could see the good in people while they’re around. We write really nice obituaries and cry our eyes out in funerals, but we’re mean and take people for granted when they’re actually around. We’ve got to stop with that, just like the crowd should have realized Jesus was a pretty cool guy before he had to make the earth quake.
But miracles abound. Unlike the robbers, Jesus’ bones haven’t broken. They’ve stayed intact, proving he’s the Lamb of God. When he’s buried, a beautiful garden springs up and you can’t help but think of the original Garden of Eden where it all started so long ago. Even though everyone who supported Jesus is totally exhausted and sad, there’s a sense of hope that lingers over all.
Jesus’ Body is Placed in the Tomb.
So there’s this rich guy named Joseph of Arimathea who just shows up at Jesus’ crucifixion and offers to help bury him. They wrap him up according to Jewish customs, and rather than being tossed out like a regular criminal, he’s given a proper burial. This is brave and selfless of Joseph—he could get in pretty big trouble if Pilate or all the angry people in the now-dispersed crowd found out. But he does it anyway.
So we pray:
Jesus, by your Spirit may we, like Joseph, show our devotion to you through courage, respect and tenderness. And may we, like Joseph, teach our students to do the same. Kindle in our hearts fervent devotion to you.
In other words, we want to be like Joseph. He believes and he acts on those beliefs, like the religious are expected to. He’s not selfish. He gives rather than takes. That takes bravery in itself, because we’re all pretty good at being greedy and pretty bad at being altruistic. (Catholic guilt is hard to shrug off when it’s been drilled into you for decades).
I’m beyond a lapsed Catholic, but I have to say, the lessons you learn reading up on the Stations of the Cross are pretty universal whether or not you believe in anything at all. You can learn from these lessons, or, more correctly, be reminded of ones you already knew anyway, when you read up on holy texts. Basic things like: Treat people well. Keep on keeping on. Don’t betray your fellow human beings. Things we forget too easily, despite how simple and universally-accepted they are.
What’s so cool is that if you think about it, Jesus walking to the cross and being crucified is being majorly analyzed. This isn’t just straight-up faith: there’s a lot of thought that goes into what every little step means. I mean, every time he falls, he’s analyzed. The passage could have read, “Jesus walked up with his cross and then he was crucified.” Writers of the Bible really knew how to follow one of the greatest tenets of creative writing: show don’t tell.
Regardless of whether Jesus Christ was a true historical person, or some dazzled-up crazy, or just a figment of a bunch of people’s imaginations, he provides us with a pretty interesting story. No wonder most churches have the Stations of the Cross on display.