|Stations of the Cross
a series of meditations
Way of the Cross
The Stations or Way of the Cross is a series of fourteen meditations on the Way of Jesus Christ in his Passion – his self-offering and acceptance of death for the sake of redeeming sinners, from the moment when he was condemned to death by worldly authority, until the moment when he is laid in the tomb prior to his Resurrection.
Images representing these fourteen Stations are almost always placed
around the walls of a Catholic church, starting near the altar on the
left-hand side (if you are facing the altar), along the left-hand wall
to the back or entrance of the church, then continuing along the
opposite wall, to finish near the altar on the right-hand side.
Images representing these fourteen Stations are almost always placed around the walls of a Catholic church, starting near the altar on the left-hand side (if you are facing the altar), along the left-hand wall to the back or entrance of the church, then continuing along the opposite wall, to finish near the altar on the right-hand side.
During Lent, and at other times of year, the faithful may individually
or in groups process from one Station to another, kneeling and praying
for few moments at each image: it is a kind of pilgrimage of the heart.
The following list of Stations is arranged in the following order
to show the way they would appear in the building, and the order in
which they would be followed by a pilgrim moving around the church.
Notice that, when viewed in this way, they form two parallel
groups of seven.
During Lent, and at other times of year, the faithful may individually or in groups process from one Station to another, kneeling and praying for few moments at each image: it is a kind of pilgrimage of the heart. The following list of Stations is arranged in the following order to show the way they would appear in the building, and the order in which they would be followed by a pilgrim moving around the church. Notice that, when viewed in this way, they form two parallel groups of seven.
Jesus is condemned to death
We are all condemned to death. Jesus took our deaths upon himself.
We are all condemned, handed over to the forces that will destroy our body. We are handed over by Adam when he accepts the forbidden fruit from Eve and rejects the word of God. This is not an event that happens in the past only; it is happening continually.
Like Adam, Pilate tries to put the blame on others, to free himself of the guilt by washing his hands. For as Adam was quick to point out, it was Eve, the Bride given to him by God, who causes the divine 'word' to be disobeyed, contradicted, sacrificed. Yet he was probably standing alongside her all the time. Eve in her turn blames the Serpent.
Like Pilate, Adam and Eve have effectively crucified the obedience and love that would have given them a right to eternal life. They have lost the 'original justice' which consists in obedience to the truth.
Way of the Cross is a replaying of the Way of Man which leads to death.
Adam rejected the Tree of Life in favour of the Tree of Knowledge. Now
in the barren
Jesus is not only Man; he is not just a second Adam. He is also God, and
therefore the source of life for the whole universe. By merging with the
Tree of Knowledge he unites it once more with the Tree of Life, from
which it had been separated by the disobedience of
Pilate might have risen above his station and defended to the death a man whom he thought to be falsely accused. Yet the one who hands Jesus over to Pilate, namely Judas, 'has the greater sin'. And the responsibility goes back further than Judas: it goes back to Adam. It is Adam's guilt that must be expiated here – and mine, for I also hand Jesus over whenever I sin, on some level knowing that he is my King.
Jesus receives his Cross
The Carpenter must take this dead wood, and fashion from death an image of the love that overcomes death.
Jesus embraces his Cross as St Francis embraced Lady Poverty.
The two beams of the Cross may have been carried separately, until they were brought together at the end of the journey. For in dying we are judged: meaning that then all our acts are brought to, connected with, the vertical line of heaven.
Jesus remains free even in the compulsion of his 'punishment'. By taking possession of the Cross that is forced upon him, by embracing it, he does not lose his freedom but gives it a particular (and universal) form.
The Cross is the form of his death. The Cross is the shadow of man. It is what all men fear. It is whatever human nature fears and shrinks from. It is the darkness, the humiliation, the ignominy, the ugliness, the powerlessness, the rejection, the immobility....
embraces this, and he does it for us. In each of us, he can do the same.
Whenever we face the shadow, he is able to embrace it and transform it.
Deep within, he is there praying in us, through his Spirit: Not my
will but thine be done.
makes the solid Cross no longer an impenetrable obstacle to us, but a
gateway, a way back into
Mark the Ascetic writes that 'It is impossible to forgive someone else's offences whole-heartedly without true knowledge; for this knowledge shows to every man that what befalls him belongs to himself.' In our case, the things that befall us, which make us suffer, belong to ourselves because we have deserved all this and more. Or we can consider that what befalls us is a gift because it enables us to share in the life and work of our Lord. In the case of Jesus, these things belong to him simply because he has been given them by his Father, and he has accepted them for the sake of the mission his Father gives, which is one of mercy to us.
Jesus falls for the first time
man who falls has been tempted, but never fell. Now the Fall begins in
Jesus falls to his knees. Symbolically there are three falls because of the three parts of human nature – body, soul and spirit (represented by the legs, torso and head). The first fall represents the acceptance of the Cross by Christ in his animal or mobile nature.
Each fall may also represent the effects of sins against goodness, beauty or truth. But Jesus does not fall in order to be symbolic. He falls because his legs give way. He can no longer walk under the weight. Yet because he is also God, everything he does and everything that happens to him is a revelation of the Divine.
As Caryll Houselander says, he is 'living through the experience of ordinary men', and this first fall is the fall of shame, of disillusionment, of frustration, that we all suffer at the beginning of adulthood. Those who set out in confidence are soon enough humbled. The first effect of sin is to deprive us of the power to carry on, to deprive us of the freedom to move, to bring us down into the dust from which we came.
As the body of Jesus begins to accept the weight of the Cross, as sin begins to do its work in him, we begin to realize that our own weakness and pain is the way we can glimpse - and perhaps share - the experience of Jesus. Whatever we suffer is only a fragment, an aspect, a drop, of the full human experience of the effects of sin.
Jesus can experience those effects in their fullness. Our very sins
prevent us from being fully conscious of anything. How often, when faced
by natural beauty, have we felt that we are not capable of even taking
it in? The same applies to evil. Jesus is pure enough to see and feel
the reality that we cannot face, that we have no place in ourselves to
receive. He is the one who is personally offended in every sin, every
compromise with the truth, every betrayal of a friend, every act of
adultery, every theft, every lack of attention. Now he begins to feel
the weight of this reality.
The Cross he has started to carry is a kind of 'sacrament' of sin. In the Cross all sin, all that blocks grace, all that is counter to the Holy Spirit, all that kills love in us, is mysteriously present. He falls three times because he has defeated the Devil three times in the wilderness. Now he permits the Evil One to take his revenge.
Jesus meets his Mother
Silence speaks louder than words, and the Word speaks in silence.
Perhaps, too, one may view the First 'Fall' of Christ as the descent of the Word into the world – a Fall that would reverse Adam's Fall into sin. The mystery of the Incarnation consists in the fact that God became man. And after he descended into the womb, and was born, the first thing he saw was his Mother's face.
is always a kind of cycle, in which some things change but the universal
laws unfold in constancy – and around Christ all those laws are
tightly wrapped, for he is the centre of time. His track to
sees her Son paying the price of the miracles she asked him to
perform, and especially the Sign he gave at
Son is about his Father's business. By accepting that fact a sword
pierces her soul, for she is walking for us, with him, the road back to
He gives a form to the great space of evil and sin in the world by the manner of his death, like a man forming a kind of portrait of the darkness. He will turn it inside-out, turn darkness to light, water into wine.
The mystery of co-redemption. The Mother and the Son, the Woman and the Man: each suffers for the other, the suffering of each magnifies that of the other. Her suffering as Mother fills out to the limit what had been 'lacking' in his. He wanted most of all to spare her this.
At the same time, perhaps, would there be a kind of consolation - if he allowed himself to feel it? She, at least, knows his dual nature and the mystery of his birth, the fact that he is the Truth and the Son of God. So her presence is a reminder of his mission, if he needed one, and a secret companionship on his chosen path. He does not need to say to her, 'My hour has come.'
What is the expression on her face? How does she greet Jesus? Does she try to encourage him to be strong, to be brave? Does she try to smile through her tears, to show that she understands? Or will she actually understand only later, when he rises from the dead?
Maybe she prays that someone will help her Son to carry the Cross.
After the encounter with the Mother comes the encounter with the Stranger.
rest of mankind is seemingly not involved in this drama which takes
Suddenly we realize that we are all involved, whether we know it or not. Every one of us will be asked to suffer some part of Christ's Passion. It is up to us how we react to that; with what grace (or lack of it) we shoulder the burden. Are we resentful, annoyed, at being compelled by circumstance to interrupt our plans, or change them altogether? Are we moved with compassion? Do we see the man's need and respond with generosity of spirit? Do we let the experience change our lives for ever? Do we let it save us?
Names in Holy Scripture are hardly coincidental. Simon's name recalls that of Simon Peter, the man to whom Christ gives a new name, 'Rock', and on whom he builds his Church. That Simon was inspired by the Spirit to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God. Is this Simon similarly open to the promptings of the Spirit? Why does Scripture note the name? Is this Simon another kind of Rock?
This Simon is the Stranger, the passer-by: the very opposite of a disciple, let alone an Apostle. Yet now he follows Christ, or perhaps he goes ahead of him, takes his place for a moment. (Only Christ can go the whole way.)
Simon Peter should have been there, at Christ's side, available to help. 'Let me carry the Cross for you, Lord. You should not have to do that, at least.' But Peter had fled, had ceded his place to a stranger – one with the same name, because he is given part of the mission of Peter.
This means that the mission we are each given will be completed, if not by ourselves then by another. And it is Christ who completes all our missions, and gives us the strength to do whatever the Father asks us to do. It is as part of Christ that we suffer, that we strive and love and die and are reborn to eternal life. There is no person, no place, no thing, that needs be closed to his life. Least of all the life of this stranger, who one day will embrace Simon Peter in heaven.
Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
The mystery of the Holy Face.
Why did not Mary wipe her Son's face? Instead, another Stranger steps forward and takes the Mother's place in the drama. But whereas Simon took Peter's place because Peter was not there, Veronica takes on the maternal role of Mary who is there – and, as it were, with her permission, in answer to her prayers.
Simon of Cyrene and now Veronica: first the man, then the woman. The man helps Jesus to shoulder the Cross. The woman wipes the blood and sweat from his face. But the man acts because he is compelled; the woman because she has pity.
The face of God. In the old days, one might not look on it and live. Now one looks in order to live. Jesus came to imprint his face upon the world. It is a woman who gives him the material with which to do sol: the cloth, the womb.
It is an act of compassion and love. When we act in such a way, to comfort the afflicted, we receive imprinted on our souls the image of Christ, the features of Christ. The veil of Veronica is not merely a relic, but represents her soul. It may have been the cloth she used to cover her own head, now become an Icon.
This is the beginning of sacred art, the first image not made by human hands, a pure grace received by the artist, who must nonetheless be there to receive it, holding out the cloth against all resistance, offering the substance to God, despite the jostling crowd and the hostility of the soldiers.
The first Icon is a mask of blood and sweat and spittle that reveals the mission and love of Christ. More beautiful Icons will be made later, Icons made from paint and from gold; but always their foundation will be the same: the moisture and the minerals of the earth, the dust and 'slime' of the ground from which Adam was made, now bearing the imprint of the Incarnation.
A veil without features is like the opposite of an actor's mask, the persona (from which we get our word 'personality'). For Christ to give it his own features is as if to say, your mission is mine, you will find yourself in me.
God reveals himself not just as God, but as Person. We were made in the image and likeness of God, and we lost that likeness through sin. Now by taking on the ugliness of sin, Jesus restores the divine likeness in us.
Jesus falls the second time
The weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor. 25).
If the first fall of Jesus was the acceptance of the weight of the Cross in his animal or mobile nature, the second is its acceptance in his psychic nature, his human soul, his imagination, and the third will be its acceptance in the deepest part of his soul – his spirit or intellect. To accept the Cross in one’s soul is to bear it upon the heart.
The weakness of God is a function of his power, which is always the power of love. The essence of love is to give and to receive, not to take. To give the self is to place oneself into the hands of another, to give up power over him. To give the self requires the ultimate power: power over the self, total self-mastery. We cannot give what is not our own.
The weakness, the powerlessness of God is expressed in the weakness of Jesus, as he fails to carry the Cross for a second time (even the part that has been left to him, now that Simon is helping). That weight, that Cross, is a 'sacrament' of all sin. It is being carried by him because of sin; it weighs on him as sin. To be crushed by it is only possible because of the strength of divine love, which enables the innocent to go into the place of sinners. As if a bubble of light were to force itself to the bottom of a dark ocean.
This weakness is a greater power than sin, because it is a deliberate act which takes possession of sin, in order to set the sinner free. The 'strong man' has broken into the house of the Devil.
All sin, though it begins with an act of freedom, is a renunciation of freedom. The only act which magnifies freedom is an act of virtue.
Freedom is the capacity to act for oneself, or to be oneself in acting, to take responsibility for one's behaviour. I cannot fully be myself if I am merely a part of myself. A free act summons all that I am. Sin, on the other hand, divides me. In sin I do not adhere to the truth of my own being, or that of the world. I am not myself, in fact I lose myself. I identify with some point on the periphery, on the circumference, not with the centre of the circle, which is in God.
Every time Jesus falls, he descends further from the vertical, from the axis of heaven, to embrace the horizontal, the plane of the earth. Then when he rises again, it is to take the earth with him on to the vertical axis of the Cross. But he will have to be placed there in the end by the hands of others, having been reduced to the passivity of earth.
Jesus speaks to the women of
Weep not for me. Weep for yourselves and your children. (Luke 23:28)
Is this admonition a refusal of their compassion? Is it a warning of what will befall, now that the world has rejected the Messiah? Or is it rather a revelation by him of the inner significance of the Way of the Cross? 'Do not think of me as separate from yourselves and your children. I am within you. I am showing you what you have done to yourselves.'
Are we not like the women of Jerusalem, when we follow the Stations of the Cross in our churches, trying to weep, feel pity for this great man so wrongly used? Does Jesus rebuke us here?
Pope Leo the Great said: 'Anyone who has a true devotion to the passion of our Lord must so contemplate Jesus on the Cross with the eyes of his heart that Jesus' flesh is his own.' To weep for ourselves and our children is to see ourselves walking the Way of the Cross. It is to lose ourselves in him; to find ourselves in him. We must unite ourselves with him if his sacrifice is to be effective.
This is the turning point in our own journey, the moment between two falls. If we are following the Way of the Cross in images along the walls of a church, we start to move back towards the sanctuary. Jesus has come to the porch; he has come to the people; he has gathered the women, the mothers and their children, to himself. Those who have understood this can take, with him, the final journey.
Jesus falls for the third time
the serpent in
Jesus begins to resemble the serpent that was raised on the staff by
Moses for the healing of
sin of Adam made him resemble the serpent. The New Adam returns to
Smitten to the ground by the weight, this time the weight of all the people, of the mothers and the children, he descends lower than he has ever gone. He is flat on his face. Now it is the earth herself, not Veronica, that rises to press his face.
He is flat, horizontal. From here he must be lifted, and lifted again, until he is stretched vertically above the world.
He falls three times because we fall three times. He resisted the Devil three times in the desert, but now is the Devil's time. A strange echo of the temptations: to cast himself down from the roof of the temple, to rule the world from a great height, to eat the stones as though they were bread....
Now he is on the threshold. He has fallen for the third and last time: body, soul and spirit. Poverty, chastity and obedience. He is ready for the wedding feast.
Jesus is stripped of his garments
We must be stripped of everything.
He will enter his Passion naked, as Adam and Eve left the Garden clothed. He will restore the Original Innocence, nakedness without shame. But he must do so through humiliation.
We must stand naked, not before men, but before God. We must repent. The sins in which we have clothed ourselves must be taken from us by force. The things that distract us, that separate us from the light and from God, the things that we have made and put between him and us, we must allow to be removed.
To enter the nuptial bed, a man must take off his clothes. This is the man who is the Spouse of all mankind. They know not what they do. Everything will look different from the other side, from eternity. What is happening is the opposite of what appears to be happening. (It often is.)
In the ancient world, athletes competed naked. Here is the supreme Athlete, and the ultimate Race.
Mother had seen him naked before - as a child. (Also John the Baptist,
when Jesus came out of the
The soldiers had already stripped him and mocked him, covering him with purple and giving him a crown of thorns, before driving him on his way. They were showing in unconscious prophecy what is to about to be done: the God-Man is about to be given his robes of state, his crown and throne.
They strip him of his single garment before nailing to him a garment of wood. What was once a living tree planted by God is now a tree of dead wood, bringing only death. This is the garment he must assume. He must cause the life to flow within it and from it again.
Jesus is nailed to the Cross
They do not know it, but they are returning the fruit to the Tree.
It is said that each of our sins penetrated his body like a nail. Each suffering in the Passion was the result of particular sins committed against him.
In his divine nature, Jesus foresaw every sin we will commit. He watches us commit them, and each causes him grief in his human nature. He foresees also the prayers of the saints, and our own acts of repentance, which are not the end of our sins. He offers each of his sufferings for those sins.
Those who drove the nails into his hands did not know that they were placing there all the sins we commit with our hands, by grasping and holding and letting go, the sins of greed and selfishness, of aggression and violence, of making and unmaking... sins against poverty.
The nails in the feet are the sins of movement, of going and coming, of running away and running towards, of avoiding and hiding, of choosing the wrong path... Sins against obedience.
The crown of thorns is placed there by the sins of the mind and the spirit, sins of pride, sins against chastity, against purity in the imagination, against truth and wisdom, against hope.
By these nails and sufferings we penetrate him, we are attached to him. We are his Cross. The Church is his Cross. The Cross is his Bride. The Cross is those he has redeemed, to whom he is united. The Cross becomes Holy, for it is the instrument he chooses to bring about the salvation of the world and his own death; it is sanctified by his blood.
Why is it necessary for Jesus to suffer all this personally, consciously? It is necessary because he is the incarnation of the fullness of God and the fullness of man. The Father does not hold back anything of the divine nature that he can give to his Son; the fullness of human nature must be united with that. Not that his human experience becomes infinite: that would not be human. Rather, the human in him achieves its maximum capacity. 'No cry of torment can be greater than the cry of one man. Or again, no torment can be greater than what a single human being may suffer' (Wittgenstein).
There is no human experience that does not find an echo or a place in him. His outline encompasses all others. In his experience we find our own completed. He brings our own lives to their conclusion.
Love is wounded and pierced by being attached, as the Buddha said. Love does not come down from the Cross. We hang there, stretched between Heaven and Earth and East and West, until drained of life.
Jesus dies on the Cross
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)
Stretched in four directions, now he breathes out his Spirit in the fifth direction, and is pierced from a sixth. The 'six directions' of space can no longer separate us from the love of God. Stretched on the Cross with his Mother and Disciple below he forms a tableau, almost like a flat picture with height and breadth but no depth. Now death supplies the depth-dimension, the front and back.
It is we who are missing in this tableau, unless we dare to place ourselves with Mary and John. We stand at a distance, gazing. The Spirit breathed out from the body reaches out to us, brings us into the picture, makes us a part of it - makes us 'Church' - adds the third dimension. The Centurion's lance penetrates the body in the opposite direction to the Spirit's trajectory, but in the same dimension, releasing the blood and water that make the Spirit flesh in us.
are we present here as the thieves crucified on his right and left? The
three crosses on
The seven 'words' from the Cross correspond to the seven petitions of the Our Father, and each is carried on a single breath, bearing with it the meaning of one of the seven sacraments of the Church that is being formed out of the Passion. The cry of dereliction, which he borrows from the Psalm, refers to the heart of his mission as High Priest and mediator of the new Covenant. With it he institutes the new priesthood, the priesthood of the Shepherd who will go into the uttermost darkness to retrieve his lost sheep from the Evil One. The sacrament of Holy Orders is to do with this bridge thrown down between heaven and hell, across the gulf that (in the parable of Lazarus and Dives) separates the rich man from the Bosom of Abraham.
The Son is forsaken because he is joined to those who are forsaken, separated from the Father by their sins. He fills that void with the spirit of obedience. He is like Isaac, who submits to Abraham's knife. The sacrifice is an act not of killing but of obedience; it is the priesthood of one who offers himself. Thus it throws open a window on the Trinity. We see the otherness of the Son from the Father, as well as the love that unites them.
Jesus is taken down from the Cross
He walks the Paths of the Dead.
The image we have of the Pieta, of the dead Son in his Mother’s arms or her lap, represents a sorrow we shy away from imagining. The Son’s suffering is over: now the Co-redeemer is left to receive it into herself. Her soul is split in two by the Word which acts like a sword in her. She is divided in order to receive.
As at the Annunciation, she receives the Body of the Lord, but now the Soul of the Lord has been taken away from it, just as then it was given. She cannot follow. She is the ocean into which he sinks now, the peace of death his body longed for as he hung on the Cross, even as his Soul continues its journey to the land of the lost.
The gift of tears. Now the bridegroom has been taken away, and his disciples can mourn. But in one way he has left them only to consummate the marriage. The path of love takes him away from his friends, in order to enter a new domain of intimacy, the secret places where new life will be conceived.
The Paths of the Dead. In this whole world there is no death, except for those who are left behind. There is only the journey into darkness or light. Into the darkness where sin forces its reward from a reluctant God, he follows them. The reward of sin is its punishment: it is to know itself fully for what it is, a living death and torment of separation. This is the punishment that the Son has taken on himself and which he now brings to the dead themselves. He has become their reward, and their punishment. He is their flame of fire, their undying worm.
On the surface of death, the Mother dreams. She can do as little as one who is dead, but her weakness is the strength of God. She is the Annunciation. She assents even as her heart shrieks against death. That is the division, the cleaving of her soul. These are the labour pains of the Church.
To us, what does this man’s death represent? Frustration, perhaps. The crushing of our hopes for ourselves and those we love, the bitterness of that failure, the resentment of that bitterness, the anger from that resentment, the hatred that wells up in us, the hatred of ourselves that is aimed at others. We are those to whom Christ is coming, to rescue. That is the path of death that he now walks, following us as deep as we can go to hide from him, in order to lead us to an unthinkable, unimaginable end.
Faith may be dead. Hope may be dead. Love lives on.
Jesus is laid in the tomb
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. (Psalm 130)
Like an arrow to its target, the Lord sinks deeper into the earth, carrying within him secretly and in disguise the poison that will destroy death.
Until now, perhaps, passivity (of which being dead is the extreme case) has been an imperfection, a sheer lack – of activity, of goodness, of being. But Christ has assumed that corpse-like passivity into the Trinity, where death now becomes an expression of the divine Act, a part of the Incarnation. No longer passivity, it has been transformed into disponibility, or receptivity: the state of being able to be used by the divine will. In Baptism we join our natures to that of Christ, our death to that of Christ, our powerlessness to his all-accomplishing will.
This darkness, the acceptance of the will of another even to the separation of body and soul, is the beginning of a great flood of graces from the Passion. The first thing it makes possible is the Blessed Virgin's fiat, years earlier, when she accepts to become the Mother of God. For that was no mere passive obedience, as in the acceptance of an action forced upon her by a greater power: it was a deed consciously undertaken and motivated by love; being active it could not have been passive. To make the will of another one's own is not merely to submit one's own will to that of another, but it is to become one with the other. That is how we are joined to him. Thus God is received into man.
is laid in the tomb by the man Joseph, who represents the human father
of Jesus. The two men shared the same name, because their missions were
so similar, the one being a symbolic extension of the other. Joseph of
Arimathea, according to tradition, is also the keeper of the Grail that
served the Last Supper and caught the Precious Blood (there in the Upper
Room, and also on
What goes into the tomb with Christ is everything we have lost, or is taken away from us by time, illness and death. Old people are more conscious than others of the things that slip away: chances that will not come again, smiles and voices that will not be heard, beautiful places now covered over. All of these things pour like an endless stream into the grave, and all of them are kept safe by Jesus, and all of them will rise with him in the morning.