Today on this last day before Ash Wednesday we will consider two things. The first is the devotion of the Stations of the Cross, a devotion that is widely celebrated during the season of Lent. Then, we will have a last minute “check list” to help you to decide what it is you will do this Lent to enter into the spirit of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. This podcast will e a little longer than the others, but I think on this Mardi Gras it will be helpful to get us ready to being a great season of Lent. So let’s get started.
The Stations of the Cross began as an historical way to imitate a pilgrimage to the Holy Land centuries ago. The Holy Land had been captured and so it was not possible for people to go to Jerusalem. For others, it was not financially possible to go to the Holy Land. So, there arose this devotion, sometimes call the via dolorosa (way of sorrow) or the via crucis (the way of the cross).
Consider the notion of a station as a stop on the pilgrimage. At each station there is an event to be remembered, usually accompanied by prayers. The prayers can either be formal prayers for this purpose, or you could simply reflect on each station with your own prayers. Traditionally there are 14 stations, but in recent times some have added a fifteenth station to commemorate or pray about the resurrection of Jesus. This is because without the resurrection, the other events have no deep spiritual meaning.
When you enter a Catholic church, you will often notice artistic representations of each station on the walls of the church. Catholic parishes often celebrate the Stations of the Cross during the season of Lent, usually on Fridays. There are also booklets available and websites that have the prayers as well.
And so what are the stations of the cross? Well, there are the traditional stations of the cross, but there are also different stations that have recently been added, like Saint Pope John Paul II’s stations. Stations have been written for other purposes as well, such as for vocations or to pray for victims of human trafficking. I will focus here on the traditional stations of the cross since that is what it is you will most likely experience. Let’s take some time to summarize each one.
It is common that before each station the following prayer is said. “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you. For by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.” In communal recitation, it is common that the leader says the first sentence and everyone else responds with the second sentence.
The First Station. Jesus is condemned to death.
This station represents what happened in the trial at the Sanhedrin when Jesus is condemned. One can also recall Jesus standing before Pilate because it was Pilate who gave the sentence of death. Many thoughts may come to mind at this station. We may think of the discomfort of being accused when we know we are innocent. I think many people have had this experience, perhaps not as dramatically, but we have had it. Or perhaps it is a time to help us to focus us on those who are persecuted for their faith. Maybe we think of the leaders who out of jealousy handed Jesus over to Pilate. Perhaps we think of how easy it is to go along with the crowd.
The Second Station. Jesus carries his cross.
One thing the Romans were very good at was torture. Among the most gruesome tortures was the crucifixion. This method of death was brutal, designed to maximize suffering of the one killed. Secondly, those crucified were often crucified on a hill, readily visible for everyone, since another purpose was to intimidate others so that they would be discouraged from performing the same actions. It was also the case that the one being crucified carried his cross (or usually the cross beam) to the place of crucifixion. Such was the case for Jesus too. Not only was he to be crucified and die a gruesome death, he was to bring a significant part of that torture to his crucifixion. Given its weight and the distance he had to travel, this was a painful part of his suffering.
The Third Station. Jesus Falls the first time.
If there is something admirable in the suffering of Jesus is that as divine Son of God he suffers as one who is fully human. Real pain. Real anxiety. Real fatigue. Jesus falls. Yet in his humanity we see the profound love of God. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Divine Son assumed full human nature to save us. And in this station we encounter that humanity in a real way.
The Fourth Sation. Jesus Meets his mother.
When we think of a person on death row, about to be executed, we do not always consider the mother of the convicted. We might feel great anger at the crime committed, we certainly feel sorry and empathy for the victims of crime. But do we consider in any way the family of the one on death row? Imagine the powerful emotion of Jesus as he meets his mother who is a witness first hand of the suffering, the pain, and the embarrassment of her son about to be publicly executed.
The Fifth Station. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry his cross.
It can be hard to admit that we need help. It can be hard when we might be forced to help someone else. Sometimes we do not want to get involved. We would rather stay away. And yet in the suffering poor we are always given the invitation to be Simon of Cyrene. We are given the invitation to help Jesus carry his cross.
The Sixth Station. Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus.
Even the smallest things matter a great deal when we are in a bad place. Veronica does something that may seem small, but by this great act of kindness she grows in grace. Sometimes we think that holiness means that we do something so extraordinary that it is beyond what we might be able to do. But as Veronica reminds us, every time we meet the need of someone struggling, we do this for Jesus.
The Seventh Station. Jesus falls the second time.
Oh, my. Perseverance. How is it I hang in there long enough to make it to the end. It can be really hard when we find ourselves so tired we cannot seem to imagine we will be able to finish the task. But it is important to remember that in our darkest times, when we are faint or weary, or without strength, at those times when we sin or fail, it is Jesus who understands our weakness and forgives our sins when we are contrite. This station reminds us that life is a constant cycle of strength and weakness, of mountains and valleys, of peaks and dips.
The Eighth Station. The Women of Jerusalem Weep over Jesus.
Sometimes the suffering of others is so overwhelming that it impacts our emotions. We are powerfully overcome with both sympathy and empathy. The women of Jerusalem, perhaps followers of Jesus, are so moved by his plight. They cry. Sometimes we can downplay our suffering by saying glibly someone else has it worse. And there are certainly times where such a reminder is helpful. But at this time Jesus reminds the women of the suffering in their life and consoles them. Jesus will console us too in our struggles.
The Ninth Station. Jesus falls the third time.
When there are only fourteen or fifteen stations, why are three of them about the falling of Jesus? For the sake of efficiency, would not one station dedicated to the times Jesus fell be enough? If life were really simple and always made sense, maybe it would. But life is not really simple. Life does not always make sense. In our significant endeavors we fall often. One priest pointed out to me something else. When do the falls of Jesus get prayed? At the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. Isn’t that the way it is with us? We start off with a flash, but something does not go right. We fall. We get back up only to fall again in a little while. We get to that point where we feel like we cannot go on. Where we have so little strength, we can feel it is hopeless. It is at these times we must call out to God the most.
The Tenth Station. Jesus is stripped of his garments.
Jesus is really alone. He loses is garments. There is no hiding his suffering. It is on display for everyone to see. For some, the hardest part of our suffering is when there is not way to hide it from the people we love. Sometimes we like to cover ourselves, to hide from God. But hiding is not always a good thing. We can hide for good reasons, but just like Adam and Eve we can hide when we should allow ourselves to be found.
The Eleventh Station. Jesus is Nailed to the Cross.
I mentioned earlier that the process of crucifixion was developed to maximize suffering. It was used to tell others that this was no person to imitate. Yes, Jesus was the Son of God, but as one who is also fully human his pain was very, very real. The physical pain was only part of the struggle. People who are crucified do not die because of the pain of being nailed to the cross. No, they suffocate. People could be on the cross for days. And to breath, they needed to constantly push themselves up to relieve pressure on their lungs. So if they wanted to speed the process, the romans broke the legs of people on the cross. But this part of the suffering of Jesus is fantastic indeed. He was scourged. He carried his cross. Now he hangs on the cross for our sins. How deep is his love for us!
The Twelfth Station. Jesus Dies on the Cross.
Our salvation comes down to this. With his mother at the foot of the Cross, the human Jesus dies. He simply has no more left to give, because he has given it all. For you. For me. And he does not give all because we deserve it. No, he gives all because he loves us. He loves us in ways we could never imagine or understand.
The Thirteenth Station. Jesus is taken down from the Cross.
Once a person dies, it is not our custom to cast away the body with no care. Rather, just the opposite. Imagine the care that was given to Jesus after he died as they removed him from the Cross. Of course, first they had to make sure he was dead, and so they thrust a spear into his side. Water and blood flowed out. Our baptism and the eucharist flow from this side of Jesus. The two great sacraments are given to the Church in this moment.
The Fourteenth Station. Jesus is laid in the tomb.
This is the moment of silence. But such an important moment too. When a loved one dies, the care for the body is not some insignificant moment. Because we know the end of the story, the silence of Jesus laid in the tomb is not deafening. No, the silence will give way soon to the great miracle of the resurrection.
The Fifteenth Station. The Resurrection.
Death is conquered! Our sins forgiven! God is more powerful than evil, sin and death! There is a reason that some felt the need to add this fifteenth station. It is because without the resurrection, the suffering and death of Jesus, while tragic, simply would not be the great salvific act it is for us. The naysayers would be right. Saint Paul tells us that if Jesus is not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain. And so every time we consider our sins, those evil actions we commit, we consider the suffering and death of Jesus. But when we bring those sins to Jesus, his resurrection reminds us that we are indeed saved.
So, what will you do for Lent?
We have come to the end of our Lenten preparation. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, and we will need to decide how it is we will enter into prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As we need to make an intentional decision about what we are going to do. Notice that I said intentional. Do not simply rely on what you have done before. Think about what you need to do to be more open to a relationship with Jesus. Think about what you need to do to be open to a deeper prayer life. Think about what you need to do to remove those things that stand in the way of allowing Jesus to enter more fully into your heart and soul. Think about what you need to be generous with in terms of helping those in need.
Over these past nine days I have tried to indicate the ways in which we can focus on how to be really ready for a great season of Lent. Hopefully you have thought about how you might deepen your prayer life, how you will sacrifice, how you will be more generous. But it is also good to remember something else. Whatever you choose to do for Lent does not bind under the pain of sin. That is, if you are not faithful to your Lenten promise, you have not sinned. Like Jesus who got up each time he fell, you have an invitation to get up again too. After all, the purpose is not a sense of accomplishment alone, but rather the purpose is to feel the deep, loving, fulfilling relationship Jesus longs to have with you.
So let’s remember each other during this season of Lent. Let’s pray for each other. And let’s look forward to celebrating again the great victory of Jesus over sin and death. One last thing. If you are able to do so, make it a point to celebrate the sacrament of confession. God is so rich in mercy, and Lent is the perfect time to throw yourself on the mercy of God. He loves you and cares for you. If you are broken or need healing, go to him. He will welcome you more fully than you can possible know.
Tomorrow I will start with the daily reflections for the season of Lent. God bless you.