As Christians we, of course, prefer to look to the future, to time spent eternally in heaven in the presence of God.
As people we often can’t fathom the future, though. And, frankly, we often have a hard time living in the present moment as well. As human beings we generally get caught up in the past. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I love history. Though the Bible isn’t really supposed to be considered primarily a history book, it does allow us to look back on things that have happened and gain perspective, insight and inspiration from the people and the stories. Out of much of that has sprung traditions that the Church – in particular the Catholic Church – has developed into holy and meaningful spiritual practices.
Special seasons such as Advent and Easter are rich with such practices. But one of my favorites is generally associated with this time of year, the season of Lent.
I love the Stations of the Cross.
The practice also is known as the Way of the Cross, or Via Crucis in Latin or even the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows). It began as a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but now generally is depicted in a series of artistic representations or sculptures depicting various scenes and happenings during Christ’s final hours before his death.
Most Catholic churches contain these scenes in some form, usually on the walls. They could be plaques or paintings, and the practice often involves the person or group physically moving from one scene to the next as they recall that event in a prayerful way.
It is said that St. Francis of Assisi began the Stations of the Cross as a chapel devotion and that it grew in popularity during the 15th and 16th centuries. By the mid 19th century, all Catholic churches were allowed and even encouraged to include the stations.
The Stations of the Cross are not just a Roman Catholic practice. It is common in the Lutheran church as well as the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican church.
For me it has been a part of my Lent for as long as I can remember, and I have had many moving experiences with the Stations. I remember praying the Stations every year as a grade-school student at St. Charles Borromeo Church in St. Charles, Missouri, where there are rather large sculptures depicting each of the 14 scenes lining the walls of the church building.
During my wife Donna’s decade working at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville, Illinois, I got to experience two types of “living” Stations of the Cross – one outdoor enactment by actors on Good Friday, and one indoor enactment earlier during Holy Week. (I played a silent Pontius Pilate, and Donna had a speaking role as Pilate’s wife in the indoor portrayal.)
And I participated in a retreat that included a living Stations of the Cross meditation. It happened almost at the beginning of the retreat and served as a true statement of Jesus being present to me, a wonderful way to start the retreat.
The Stations are meant as a way of focusing on Christ’s Passion that led to his death, but it’s not really about history. Some of the scenes are more about tradition than depicting events we know actually occurred, because some of them (such as meeting the women of Jerusalem) aren’t mentioned in Scripture. Instead, they are opportunities to pray, to be drawn into that Passion event.
Some of the scenes have struck me emotionally for as long as I can remember. There is the Third Station – Jesus falls the first time, which comes right after Jesus takes up his cross. He already had been betrayed, awake all night, interrogated, scourged with whips and chains by the soldiers. Now he was carrying the heavy wooden burden upon which he soon would be nailed.
Of course he fell under that weight.
There is the Seventh Station – Jesus falls the second time, which comes right after Veronica lovingly wiped his sweaty, bloody, worn face. Simon had helped him carry the cross for a ways, but Christ’s legs were heavy with fatigue and the wood of the cross was scratching and digging into the deep wounds of his back.
Of course he couldn’t stand up against that.
But the one that pierces me every time is the Ninth Station – Jesus falls the third time. The thought of what one man’s body could endure and the fact that he was doing it out of such great love for all of mankind – for me! — is more than my feeble mind can fathom. He has had it. The persecution, the torture, the hatred have taken their toll.
It’s not amazing that he fell.
It’s amazing that he kept getting up. Even after that third time. He didn’t breathe his last at that moment. He didn’t give up. He still had his Father’s business to do. He had to hear the confession of the “good thief” and promise him paradise. He had to be our sin upon that cross and know that moment of being completely forsaken by God. He had to forgive everyone – all of us – who did that to him.
He fell under the greatest burden ever known by any man, but he continued on. He didn’t stay down. He kept getting up.
I see people who are knocked down by life. They lose a job and can’t find another. They suffer from a chronic, often debilitating illness such as multiple sclerosis or acute pancreatitis. They experience the death of a child or a friend at far too young an age.
They get up, and that inspires me. They get up every day, day after day, and they go on. I think if you look closely at the lives of those people, you will see that they get a great deal of help. Friends and family take their arm or hold their hand or cheer them on or provide any other support they might need. Just like Simon helped Jesus carry his cross, so others help us when we fall down.
But the first move has to be by the person who fell under a burden. That’s where the desire and motivation begin.
Is it impossible? Of course not. Find a local church with the Stations of the Cross on the wall. Proceed scene by scene as you pray about whatever burden you might have and understand that you will fall, that it’s okay if you fall.
And understand that you can get up — because He did.