The Stations of the Cross tradition
By Thomas L. Weitzel
As a Passion-centered devotion, the Stations of the Cross combine art, literature and movement to recreate Christ's walk to the cross within the walls of the church, allowing those at home to make a "pilgrimage to Jerusalem" and be drawn closer to the Christ who walked there.
Christians, from time immemorial, have wanted to go to the Holy Land and walk the path that Jesus walked, especially the path to the cross. It is from this longing and from pilgrimages accomplished that the Stations of the Cross derive their popularity and devotion.
When the Roman Emperor Constantine converted in 313, his mother, Helena, set out on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to officially mark and build churches at places significant to Christ's life, most notably the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The earliest diary of a pilgrimage is given by a young woman named Egeria (perhaps a nun) around 394. She writes in detail about the Holy Week liturgies that occurred in sequence at different churches (stations) in Jerusalem as each related to the story of Jesus' Way of the Cross.
The reason, of course, for pilgrimages and remembrances of them, both then and now, is contained in the idea of sacred space. Palestine and Jerusalem, in particular, were places made sacred by the presence of the Son in whom God was made manifest to us. Certainly every Christian church is also a space made sacred by the presence of God made manifest in the word and in the sacraments. It is natural, therefore, that returning pilgrims from the Holy Land would join these two sacred spaces with artistic renderings or mementos, creating an added connection with the events of Jerusalem as celebrated in word and sacrament.
Over the years, pilgrims have visited and marked many and varied holy spots in the Holy Land. During the time of the Crusades (12th-13th centuries), devotion to the holy places relating to Christ's passion received particular attention with returning Crusaders frequently erecting tableaux of these places in their homeland. When Franciscan monks were given custody of the holy places for care and keeping in 1342, they promoted this kind of devotion by erecting similar series of tableaux in their churches, where local people could walk, pray and meditate on Christ's Way of the Cross. From there, the practice spread widely.
The number and subject matter of the Stations of the Cross have varied as widely as the number of sites marked at various times in the Holy Land itself. One 15th century account lists over 100, while others have listed 30 or even as few as five. The number 14 seems to have appeared first in the early 16th century in a list devised by a Belgian Carmelite monk named John Pascha. The number and subject matter was fixed in 1731 by Pope Clement XII, consisting of nine gospel scenes and five scenes from popular tradition, although the Roman Catholic Church is today considering a change in the number again.
The stations are intended to be a personal or small group devotion, to be walked and prayed at a time other than the usual liturgical worship of the community. Because the "Way of the Cross" has always existed as a devotion with no one official text, there have been many versions of it available. Those using biblical readings, meditations and responses are generally preferred.
Until recently, the Stations of the Cross could be found only in Roman Catholic and Episcopal Anglican churches. Over the years, however, Lutherans too have gradually found that the piety of the stations matches well with their traditional Lenten piety, adorning the walls of their naves with appropriate artistic renderings or even with simple black paper crosses and Roman numerals.
Editor’s note: Author Thomas Weitzel invites you to download “A Handbook for the Discipline of Lent,” which he developed to assist his congregation in their approach to Lent.