The week begins with a parade and ends with “stations” visited. Baptists do not usually speak about “stations of the cross,” for we, like our Anabaptist forebears, are a bit suspicious about anything too Catholic. (On balance, the Anabaptists were equally suspicious of Protestants.) We hesitate to embrace the varied traditions (some extra-canonical) surrounding the long trudge to Golgotha and resist locating ourselves in the narrative of the encounters along the Via Dolorosa. Yet, revisiting these events might prompt deeper reflection and worship as we journey with him.
The 14 stations, which are pictures or carvings designed for a devotional pilgrimage when persons could no longer visit Jerusalem, depict incidents as Jesus makes his way from the house of Pilate to his hasty burial in an unmarked tomb. Pilgrims traced his pathway in Jerusalem, and the spiritual practice of following this route is attested from an early date. These physical sites became an important connection with Jesus, but when travel to Jerusalem became too difficult in the Middle Ages, churches and monasteries laid out the pattern so that the faithful might follow his steps.
On Friday of this week, throngs of Christians in Jerusalem will re-enact his sorrowful journey and remember the stations. The word station comes from a Latin word that means “to stand,” so the invitation is to linger at these sites and contemplate their meaning. Statio is called the “holy pause,” such as the attentive quiet before the Benedictines process to prayer.
The first station summons us to remember that Pilate condemns Jesus to death. Fearful of upsetting a delicate political and religious system, he succumbs to pressure and hands Jesus over to those who will execute him according to Roman law. His hand washing fools no one, especially not his troubled conscience. Jesus’ solidarity with humanity only deepens.
Station two portrays Jesus receiving the cross, an ignominious mission to carry one’s own instrument of torturous death. Sturdy enough to support a man, he drags the heavy crossbar through the streets … until he cannot.
Station three acknowledges his first fall, as he is already weak from scourging, interrogation, and exhaustion. Deprived of sleep and companionship, his strength ebbs. How long did he lie in anguish before he shoulders the load again?
Station four illumines his encounter with his mother, whose suffering rivals his own. Old Simeon had said that a sword would pierce her heart, also. As Michelangelo’s Pietà depicts, her suffering is nearly unbearable. And she walks along the way, lending her strength, and stays until his death.
Station five reveals how Simon of Cyrene, like many darker persons over history, is pressed into the service of another. Did Jesus resist being helped, like the proud among us? I wonder what Jesus said to Simon to express gratitude that lightened his load. I wonder where the disciple named Simon was at this point.
Station six shows Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. It is a compassionate act, and I can imagine there were other furtive expressions of care to the bloodied one passing by.
Station seven records a second fall, and only the ground supports him. Prostrate in the dust, he remembers his kinship with frail humankind, and he understands the disability that haunts the weak and suffering.
Station eight pictures the women of Jerusalem and their children coming to comfort and thank him. He had welcomed these throughout his ministry; why would they not seek him out as one who knows their marginalization and accumulated grief?
Station nine ratchets up the drama as Jesus falls for a third time. He is near death already, and he can hardly proceed to where the vertical crucifixion stake awaits its lethal companion.
Station 10 discloses the indignity of public nakedness as his clothes are taken away. Stripped of any shred of protection from cruel nails and spear, he is truly Word become flesh.
Station 11 is the wrenching image of Jesus being nailed to the cross. “Sorrow and blood flow mingled down,” in the words of Isaac Watts’ memorable lyrics.
Station 12 has little to animate the scene: Jesus dies on the cross. Between two criminals with a mocking title overhead, he commends his spirit to the One he has trusted to the end, albeit with an agonizing sense of forsakenness.
Station 13 simply shows the lifeless body of Jesus being removed from the cross, now lying in his mother’s arms. He has entered the realm where every human will go. He has died and borne with him the sin of the world so that God might offer a general pardon to all the estranged.
The final station renders the transport of Jesus’ body to his tomb, where the huge stone rolled into place symbolizes the permanence of death. His life is over, and the few who watched with him leave devastated.
We flinch from the excruciating suffering (rightly named) Jesus endured and hurry toward Easter resolution. Yet, there can be no rejoicing and sense of victory if we do not enter the darkness with him. What might that look like for us as we follow his passion?