In November of 2019, I sat in our priest’s office at church with my ministry partner, Jessi, as we naively discussed small group plans for 2020. It had been a discouraging season in ministry, but we had finally found a topic to get excited about. We would spend the beginning of the year studying the Stations of the Cross as a group, going through the origins of the service, discussing each Station, and comparing and contrasting different orders of service and meditations on the Stations. Our study would culminate in a parish-wide prayer walk through our city right before Holy Week, in addition to our traditional Stations service at the church on Good Friday.
There were two major things we didn’t know as we made these plans. First, that most of them would never happen. Our first study meeting was on January 16, the day after the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the US. By mid-March, our study had been moved to Facebook Live videos. Our carefully planned Prayer Walk was cancelled, and rather than meeting together to pray the Stations on Good Friday, we watched Holy Week services from our living rooms.
The second thing we didn’t know? That studying the Stations of the Cross would be a perfect fit for the season to come.
What are the Stations of the Cross?
The Stations of the Cross, also known as The Way of the Cross, are an act of devotion dating back to early Christianity, following the path of Jesus from his trial in front of Pilate to his burial in the tomb. Along the way, reflections and prayers are offered at key points in the story, focusing on the different aspects of Christ’s suffering, and asking us to mourn our sins. While the Stations can be prayed at any time, they are particularly appropriate for Lent, and often observed on Good Friday.
The Via Dolorosa
The tradition began as a pilgrimage, with Christians walking the actual route Jesus took from Pilate’s home and ending at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This route was later named the Via Dolorosa, Latin for the Sorrowful Way or the Way of Suffering. Many credit the tradition to Mary, the mother of Jesus; however, the earliest recorded pilgrims walking the Via Dolorosa were in the fourth century following the legalization of Christianity by Constantine.
As early as the fifth century, Christians began to physically recreate the Stations in other locations, allowing those who were unable to make the pilgrimage to participate in the devotion. Typically, each station includes a numbered cross, as well as artwork representing the Station.
Orders of service and meditations
When practicing the Way of the Cross, there are two possible formats. First, there are the traditional orders of service. These orders of service typically include versicles and responses, a prayer, a Scripture reading, or a brief reflection. Popular Catholic orders of service include the method of St. Francis of Assisi, or the method of St. Alphonsus Ligouri. The Anglican order can be found in the Book of Occasional Services. In addition to these more traditional orders of service, you will sometimes find thematic orders, including prayers or reflections on a specific topic. For example, Pope Francis led a Way of the Cross service focused on praying for specific groups of people who are suffering.
While the second format still follows the same station-by-station outline, they are meditations about each station rather than an order of service. Fulton Sheen’s The Way of the Cross is a short examination of our motives and attitudes towards the Cross—in many ways similar to a preparation for confession. Henri Nouwen’s Walk With Jesus combines reflections on a beautiful series of artwork by Sister Helen David with stories of poverty and suffering Nouwen witnessed during his travels. Nouwen ties these stories of pain and sorrow back to the hope and example of Jesus.
How many Stations of the Cross are there?
The number of Stations has varied over time, however, most commonly there are 14 Stations of the Cross. Of these 14 stations, eight come directly from events recorded in the gospels. The remaining six, asterisked below, are, according to the Book of Occasional Services, “based on inferences from the Gospels or pious legends.” Some traditions will also add a fifteenth station to commemorate the resurrection.
The 14 Stations of the Cross are:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- Jesus takes up his Cross
- Jesus falls the first time*
- Jesus meets his affiliated mother*
- The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene
- A woman [Veronica] wipes the face of Jesus*
- Jesus falls a second time*
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus falls a third time*
- Jesus is stripped of his garments
- Jesus is nailed to the Cross
- Jesus dies on the Cross
- The body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother*
- Jesus is laid in the tomb
The Anglican order of service for the Way of the Cross includes the six stations that are not directly found in Scripture, but also allows for their omission. The Anglican readings and prayers for the extrabiblical stations do not directly reference the named events of those stations, but instead focus on themes associated with them, such as the suffering of Mary and Jesus’ willingness to humble himself in human form.
Differences in tradition between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches
In addition to the extrabiblical stations, there are two primary differences between the Roman Catholic observance of the Way of the Cross and the Anglican observance. While both Catholics and Protestants view the Way of the Cross as a good devotion for self-examination and acknowledgment of sin, the Catholic church takes it a step further by defining it as a way to receive a plenary indulgence—“a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1471).
Second, while there are many variations on the Stations service, most Catholic traditions put a larger emphasis on the role of Mary, with the stations in many ways being told from her point of view. The method of St. Francis Assisi, for example, includes a Hail Mary at each station, as well as part of the hymn Stabat Mater (“the mother is standing.”) While a variation of the Stabat Mater may be sung at Anglican services, within each station, it’s replaced by the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us”).
How to pray the Stations of the Cross
There are many ways to incorporate the Way of the Cross into your Lenten observance. While the services are relatively short, they are best read slowly and with pauses for reflection. Physically moving from place to place is optional, but encouraged as a way to embody the devotion.
Consider one or more of these opportunities to follow the Way of the Cross:
- Talk to your local parish about hosting a Way of the Cross service on Good Friday in addition to the appointed Good Friday liturgy. The service may be led by a layperson.
- Personally pray the stations each Friday during Lent, either in your home or while walking through your neighborhood or a local park.
- Read a book of meditations on the stations, focusing on 2-3 stations for each week of Lent or each day of Holy Week.
- Reflect on artwork associated with the Stations of the Cross, such as this virtual audio tour from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
- If safe to do so, organize a prayer walk through your local community. Plan stops along the way to pray each station, and identify ways to pray for those suffering or in need within your hometown.
The sorrowful way
We put a lot of value into “putting on a brave face” during times of suffering – as a culture, and often as the church too. Not by the true definition of bravery, a willingness to face and endure pain, but in a more stoic way. An encouragement to buck up, dust yourself off, and keep moving. And yes, especially in a year of suffering, sometimes putting on a brave face is essential to get us through our workdays and the ordinary tasks of life. But it can be damaging to constantly keep up that brave face, especially if the can-do attitude slowly becomes ignorance of the pain around us, and the suffering in our own hearts.
Jesus, God incarnate, the resurrection and the life, did not ignore suffering—in his life, or as he faced his death. On his walk to the Cross, he didn’t ignore the pain. He cried out. The Way of the Cross invites us to face the suffering of Christ. We acknowledge our role in his need to suffer, and we repent. We mourn and grieve, and are reminded that our Savior understands our suffering and walks beside us in our pain. We work to lessen the suffering of others, remembering the example of Christ. We pick up our cross, and sometimes we cry out or fall. And finally, we hope for what is to come, when every tear will be wiped from our eyes, and death shall be no more.
Holly Shaheen lives in Lakewood, Ohio with her husband Seth. She works full time in digital marketing, and both Seth and Holly serve as lay leaders at Lakewood Anglican Church.