The Stations of the Cross

An Entr'acte talk by John Covert, Lent 1993.

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Station I. Jesus is Condemned to Death

The Stations of the Cross are also called The Way of the Cross, Via Crucis, or Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrows).

The term refers to either the form of devotion or the series of pictures or tableaux representing certain scenes in the Passion of Christ. They may be as simple as a series of simple crosses or may be elaborate and valuable works of art. They may be indoors or out of doors. Frequently the outdoor stations are erected in beautiful gardens near pilgrimage churches, such as at the Oratory atop Mount Royal in Montreal.

The erection and use of the Stations did not become at all general before the end of the seventeenth century, but they are now to be found in almost every church. Formerly their number varied considerably in different places but fourteen are now prescribed. They are as follows:

  1. Jesus is Condemned to Death
  2. Jesus Receives the Cross
  3. Jesus Falls the First Time under the Weight of the Cross
  4. Jesus Meets his Blessed Mother
  5. The Cross is Laid upon Simon of Cyrene
  6. St. Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
  7. Jesus Falls the Second Time
  8. The Women of Jerusalem Mourn for Our Lord
  9. Jesus Falls the Third Time
  10. Jesus is Stripped of His Garments
  11. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross
  12. Jesus Dies upon the Cross
  13. Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross and Placed in the Arms of His Mother
  14. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb

Station II. Jesus Receives the Cross

Eight of the stations are based directly on events recorded in the Gospels. The remaining six (stations III, IV, VI, VII, IX, and XIII) are based on inferences from the Gospels or upon pious legend.

To make use of the form of devotion "more relevant" outside the season of Lent, there is sometimes added a fifteenth station representing the Resurrection.

The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death, and this has become one of the most popular of Catholic devotions. It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing a stanza of the "Stabat Mater" while passing from one Station to the next.

At the Cross her station keeping
Stood the mournful mother weeping,
Where he hung, the dying Lord.

For her soul of joy bereaved,
Bowed with anguish, deeply grieved,
Felt the sharp and piercing sword.

Station III. Jesus Falls the First Time under the Weight of the Cross

The Advent has its own specific form for the devotion, consisting of an opening hymn and prayers and a specific form before and after each station.

V. We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee,
R. Because by thy Cross and Precious Blood thou hast redeemed the world.

Kyrie eleison
V. O Saviour of the world, who by Thy Cross and Precious Blood hast redeemed us.
R. Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.

Prayers and devotions at each station are taken from many sources, such as St. Augustine's Prayer Book, The Anglican Service Book, The Book of Occasional Services, a form left us by Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman, and many others.

So many forms are available that it would be possible to use the devotion weekly each Lent and never have to repeat a previously used form. And, of course, personal meditations and prayers may be used rather than a prepared form.

Station IV. Jesus Meets his Blessed Mother

The Way of the Cross constitutes a miniature pilgrimage to the holy places at Jerusalem, and the origin but not the modern form of the devotion may be traced to the Holy Land. The Via Dolorosa at Jerusalem (named in the sixteenth century) was reverently marked out from the earliest times and has been the goal of pious pilgrims ever since the days of Constantine. Tradition asserts that the Blessed Virgin used to visit daily the scenes of Christ's Passion and St. Jerome speaks of the crowds of pilgrims from all countries who used to visit the holy places in his day (born in about 340, he lived in Bethlehem from about 389 to 420).

There is, however, no direct evidence as to the existence of any set form of the devotion at that early date, and it is noteworthy that St. Sylvia (c. 380) says nothing about it in her "Peregrinatio ad loca sancta", although she describes minutely every other religious exercise that she saw practised there. Today the Franciscans lead a public procession every Friday, a tourist event which can be much more stressful than devotional because of the large pushing crowds and the guards wearing fezzes and holding participants back with wooden sticks. This is particularly the case at the seventh station (Jesus falls the second time), where the Via Dolorosa crosses the Suq, one of the busiest points in the old city. Father Doyle's "Pilgrim's New Guide to the Holy Land" says "The crowd will usually be heavy and pushing, as it would have been in Jesus's day; falling here, one could almost be trampled underfoot. He provides this prayer:

Lord Jesus, your burden is heavy but even though you stumble, you rise again to do your Father's will. So often we get discouraged and seem crushed by the burdens of life. That is when we think we have to carry them ourselves, and forget that you said: "Come to me all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you. ... Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." Strengthen us that when we fall we may clasp your hand and rise. Amen.

Station V. The Cross is Laid upon Simon of Cyrene

One of the earliest evidences of a desire to provide a way for those who could not actually go to Jerusalem to participate in this pilgrimage is at the monastery of San Stefano at Bologna where a group of connected chapels were constructed as early as the fifth century, by St. Petronius, Bishop of Bologna, intended to represent the more important shrines of Jerusalem. These may perhaps be regarded as the germ from which the Stations afterwards developed, though it is tolerably certain that nothing that we have before about the fifteenth century can strictly be called a Way of the Cross in the modern sense.

The Franciscans are the group most closely associated with the modern development of this devotion. In 1342 the guardianship of the holy places was entrusted to them, and as early as then indulgences were attached to visits to the following Stations: the place where Christ met His Blessed Mother, where He spoke to the women of Jerusalem, where He met Simon of Cyrene, where the soldiers cast lots for His garment, where He was nailed to the cross, Pilate's house, and the Holy Sepulchre.

Station VI. St. Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

The earliest use of the word Stations, as applied to the accustomed halting-places in the Via Sacra at Jerusalem, occurs in the narrative of an English pilgrim, William Wey, who visited the Holy Land in 1458 and again in 1462, and who describes the manner in which it was then usual to follow the footsteps of Christ in His sorrowful journey. It seems that up to that time it had been the general practice to commence at Mount Calvary, and proceeding thence, in the opposite direction to Christ, to work back to Pilate's house. By the early part of the sixteenth century, however, the more reasonable way of traversing the route, by beginning at Pilate's house and ending at Mount Calvary, had come to be regarded as more correct, and it became a special exercise of devotion complete in itself.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries several reproductions of the holy places were set up in different parts of Europe. The Blessed Alvarez (d. 1420), on his return from the Holy Land, built a series of little chapels at the Dominican friary of Cordova, in which, after the pattern of separate Stations, were painted the principal scenes of the Passion. About the same time the Blessed Eustochia, a poor Clare, constructed a similar set of Stations in her convent at Messina.

Station VII. Jesus Falls the Second Time

Others were at Görlitz, and at Nuremburg, with imitations of these at Louvain, Bamberg, Fribourg and at Rhodes. In several of these early examples an attempt was made, not merely to duplicate the most hallowed spots of the original Via Dolorosa at Jerusalem, but also to reproduce the exact intervals between them, measured in paces, so that devout people might cover precisely the same distances as they would have done had they made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land itself.

The number of stations has varied greatly. Wey's account, written in the middle of the fifteenth century, gives fourteen, but only five of these correspond with those in use today. Manuals for those visiting one of the sixteenth century stations erected at Romans list variously nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-seven, so it seems that even in the same place the number was not determined very definitely

A book entitled "Jerusalem sicut Christi tempore floruit", published in 1584, gives twelve Stations which correspond exactly with the first twelve of ours, and this fact is thought by some to point conclusively to the origin of the particular selection afterwards authorized by the Church, especially as this book had a wide circulation and was translated into several European languages.

Station VIII. The Women of Jerusalem Mourn for Our Lord

It appears doubtful whether, even up to the end of the sixteenth century, there was any settled form of the devotion performed publicly in Jerusalem, for Zuallardo, who wrote a book on the subject, published in Rome in 1587, although he gives a full series of prayers, etc., for the shrines within the Holy Sepulchre, which were under the care of the Franciscans, provides none for the Stations themselves. He explains the reason thus: "it is not permitted to make any halt, nor to pay veneration to them with uncovered head, nor to make any other demonstration". From this it would seem that after Jerusalem had passed under the Turkish domination the pious exercises of the Way of the Cross could be performed far more devoutly at Nuremburg or Louvain than in Jerusalem itself. It may therefore be conjectured, with extreme probability, that our present series of Stations, together with the accustomed series of prayers for them, comes to us, not from Jerusalem, but from some of the imitation Ways of the Cross in different parts of Europe.

IX. Jesus Falls the Third Time

For example, the three falls of Christ (third, seventh, and ninth Stations) are apparently the remnants of the Seven Falls, as depicted by Krafft at Nuremburg, in all of which Christ was represented as either falling or actually fallen. In explanations of this it is supposed that the other four falls coincided with His meetings with His Mother, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the women of Jerusalem, and that in these four the mention of the fall has dropped out whilst it survives in the other three which have nothing else to distinguish them.

The Veronica station (sixth) does not occur in many of the earlier accounts, whilst almost all of those that do mention it place it as having happened just before reaching Mount Calvary, instead of earlier in the journey as in our present arrangement. Veronica, by the way, is believed by some to have married Zacchaeus (who climbed the tree to see Jesus), and to have moved with him to Roc-Amadour in the French Pyrenees.

X. Jesus is Stripped of His Garments

He hath no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him: he was despised, and we esteemed him not. His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men. He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

XI. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross

O Jesus! may the contemplation of thy suffering move us with the deepest compassion, make us to hate our sins, and kindle in our hearts more fervent love of thee. May thy image be graven on our minds, until we are transformed into thy likeness. Amen.

That my heart fresh ardor gaining,
And a purer love attaining,
May with thee acceptance find.

XII. Jesus Dies upon the Cross

In conclusion it may be safely asserted that there is no devotion which enables us more literally to obey Christ's injunction to take up our cross and follow Him. A perusal of the prayers usually given for this devotion in any manual will show what abundant spiritual graces may be obtained through a right use of them, and the fact that the Stations may be made either publicly or privately in any church renders the devotion specially suitable for all.

XIII. Jesus is Taken Down from the Cross and Placed in the Arms of His Mother

O how said and sore distressed
Now was she, that mother blessed
Of the sole-begotten One.

Deep the woe of her affliction
When she saw the crucifixion
Of her ever glorious Son.

XIV. Jesus is Laid in the Tomb

Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pool and Fountain of Redemption, St. Joseph's Oratory, Montréal

The fourteen plaques of The Stations of the Cross at Saint Lawrence Church in Brookline appear to the left.

The fourteen plaques of The Stations of the Cross at The Church of the Advent which were executed in 1951 by J. Gregory Wiggins appear to the right.