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?