The Stations of the Cross: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

– Collect for Monday of Holy Week, 2019 Book of Common Prayer

This prayer, used on Monday of Holy Week, serves as a perfect and compact introduction to the historical practice known as the Stations of the Cross. I know no better way to savor the Cross of Christ than to walk the way of the stations. Christians emphatically believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world. Indeed, we reaffirm this daily.

The stations allow us to unfold this reality in much greater detail—and the grace of God is found in the details. Nothing that happens to Jesus here is happenstance. Every grain that makes up the hardwood of the cross matters. But meditating on the Cross of Christ sometimes seems like trying to hold the ocean in your hands.[i] Here, we walk in the way of the cross, finding it anew to be the way of life and peace. Walking takes time. We stop, we contemplate, we mourn, we rejoice. Like St. John and Mary, when we take the time to deliberately place ourselves under the cross, the nectar of mercy, drop by drop, flows down in a way we can absorb.

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The Origin of the Stations

This exercise is an ancient practice. We can speak of its origins as two-fold.

First, there is the historicity of the cross. The Apostles’ Creed reminds us that Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate. In physical time and space, through slow and painful steps, with hardwood and spikes, God accomplished the world’s salvation. This did not happen “once upon a time,” but in a place you can visit. It happened in our world. Christians are committed to history—God is committed to history—and the origins of this service are related to that commitment.

Secondly, because of this, as Christian pilgrims began to visit this place and prayerfully trace these steps, they took the practice back to their homelands, thus cultivating the devotion we know as the Stations of the Cross.

The Design of the Stations

The design of the Stations of the Cross service is relatively simple. Fourteen “steps” of the cross are undertaken with an identical pattern at each station. Most basically, there is

  1. a reading from scripture,
  2. a time of silent and/or spoken reflection, and
  3. a concluding prayer.

Good examples of this outline can be found, for instance, in St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. Online options are available, too.

The Forms of the Stations

The Traditional Stations

There are two primary forms of stations. The first is called the “traditional” Stations of the Cross. This form is distinctive because it begins with Pilate’s judgment upon Christ and the events that ensue from there. It is also distinctive because it includes Station VI: the giving of Veronica’s veil to Jesus as he carried his cross. Although this “step” in the way of the cross is not found in the Gospels, Church tradition has long upheld it, and Anglicans certainly have used it. Sometimes, the Resurrection is included at the end of the stations as a reminder that the cross is not, in fact, the last word.

These are the traditional stations:

  1. Jesus is condemned to death
  2. Jesus takes up his cross
  3. Jesus falls the first time
  4. Jesus meets his mother
  5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross
  6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
  7. Jesus falls for the second time
  8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  9. Jesus falls for the third time
  10. Jesus is stripped of his garments (sometimes called the “Division of Robes”)
  11. Jesus is nailed to the cross
  12. Jesus dies on the cross
  13. Jesus is taken down from the cross
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

The Biblical Stations

The second form is called the “biblical” Stations of the Cross. Interestingly, Pope John Paul II popularized this form in the early 1990s, celebrating the service at the Coliseum in Rome yearly on Good Friday. This service is distinctive (and, in my opinion, preferred) for several reasons. First, the Passion begins not at the judgment seat of Pilate but in Gethsemane. We behold this theological truth: Jesus received his cross from the Father, not from Pilate or any other man. Jesus chose his cross—it was not chosen for him. Personally, I also find the content of these stations a bit richer fare. Here, we see the denial of Peter and Jesus’s words to the penitent thief, to name a couple of gems.

These are the biblical stations:

  1. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane
  2. Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested
  3. The Sanhedrin judges Jesus
  4. Jesus is denied by Peter three times
  5. Jesus is judged by Pilate
  6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns
  7. Jesus takes up his cross
  8. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross
  9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
  10. Jesus is crucified
  11. Jesus promises his kingdom to the repentant thief
  12. Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other
  13. Jesus dies on the cross
  14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

The Practice of the Stations

The stations can become a regular spiritual discipline in a variety of ways. First, personally. Set aside a time in the week to keep the stations (perhaps in the season of Lent). An alternative might be to use the stations as part of a spiritual retreat. Second, corporately. The stations make for a ready-made service of prayer in reflection, especially in Lent or Holy Week. Art from the congregation or artwork can also be employed with significant effect. 19th-century French artist James Tissot has a compelling (and readily available) collection of paintings that follow the path of the stations. Contemporary artwork also abounds. The collected stations of artist Michael O’Brien stand out as exemplary for meditation.

Christ For Us

Lastly, if you are new to the Stations of the Cross, I want to give you a word of advice. In praying through the stations with other Christians, I’ve found two things: 1) in time offered for reflection at each station, folks tend to be hesitant about offering up their praise and prayers. 2) Tied to #1, we tend to jump too quickly to imitate the cross instead of wondering over the cross. I think the two points are connected. We run too quickly to WWJD without contemplating and grounding our action in WHJD (What Has Jesus Done—a new acronym!).

Lest I be misunderstood, I want to say that the cross is absolutely our example in the Christian life. St. Paul says that Jesus died “for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Corinthians 5:15). Walking also means, in some ways, imitating. But the fountain and the inner sap of the stations are found in the uniqueness of what Jesus accomplished. In the stations, we will see again and again how Jesus is very much unlike us. This is good news. For “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). As John Stott memorably put it, the meaning of Jesus’ life is found not simply in the living of his life, but in the giving of his life.[ii]

In the stations, see Jesus giving his life for you. See the unparalleled strength of Jesus. See the true humanity and weakness of Jesus. Behold the complete, perfect, and last sacrifice for sin. Hear the tetelestai (it is finished!). Turn the diamond in the rays of Christ’s glory. If you linger long over the details of the cross in this way, the fires of prayer will be well stoked, and the fountain of your praise—in word and deed—will never run dry.

 Footnotes

[i] Consider this: the events leading up to or falling within Holy Week comprise about 50% of the Gospels (!).

[ii] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 32.


Image: Jesus Falls under the Cross from The Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1886-1894) by James Tissot.

Author

Justin Clemente

The Rev. Justin Clemente serves as Associate Pastor to the people of Holy Cross Cathedral in Loganville, Georgia. With his wife, Brooke, he has six beautiful children.

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