STATIONS OF THE CROSS: Introduction, by Joan Chittister
The Path to New Life
From: The Way Of The Cross
Every journey through life is a deeply personal and forever unpredictable one. No two of us ever do it in quite the same way. Except for one thing: However stable our circumstances, however solid our formation, however fortuitous both our beginnings and our immediate circumstances, we are all of us at the mercy of change and beholden to the fragility of time.
The bends and curves of personal experience move back and forth in seamless fashion between the startling luminance of life at one moment to the dark night of the soul at the next. On one day, life, it seems, is unambiguous. Everything has been settled once and for all. The job is secure, the marriage is firm, the house is in the right place, the future is assured. Nothing is too much for us. No clouds threaten the sense of achievement or compromise the flow of blessings we have come to expect. But then suddenly, on the next day, it all begins to unravel, it disappears and nothing is certain anymore. Confusion, consternation, obstruction, uncertainty set in, obscuring our vision, disturbing our hearts. Very little of life feels right now; the sense of failure, the fear of the unknown weighs us down.
At times like that, where do we turn for understanding? Where can we look in those dark, lonely moments to find hope? When there is no way out but through, when there is no clear course beyond the murk of it all, what do we do then? Where is the model of strength we need to stay the course, to live through the pain, to assuage the hurt, to find hope in the future? Where in all the in-between-places of life are the signs of promise that beckon us beyond pain to its burgeoning fulfillment?
One of the oldest devotions in Christianity, the Stations of the Cross, attests to the ongoing human effort to understand the place of suffering in the human’s search for resurrection from death to life that is part and parcel of what it means to be alive and grow and become our best selves as we go.
If nothing else, the ongoing popularity of the Stations of the Cross across the ages is a sign of the universal awareness of the presence of pain in life. However much effort and resources and human race puts into the elimination or cure of pain, both physical and emotional, pain simply does not go away. It is part of life. Its inevitability and its burdens, its necessary contribution to the growth of human wisdom and its call to human growth remain. It is not only part of the spiritual process of human development, it is essential to the process of stretching us to the very breadth of our souls.
No wonder then that the popularity of the Stations of the Cross as a perennial devotion can be traced across the ages. There are signs of the practice in Jerusalem as early as the third century when pilgrims began to trace the way of Jesus from the garden of Gethsemane to the hill of Calvary.
By the fourteenth century, the number of “stations” or stopping points along the route from Jesus’s condemnation in the house of Pilate to the finding of the empty tomb had become identified and ordered. By the sixteenth century, the devotion had spread to the universal church. Now, in the twenty-first century, the stations are still a public statement of faith, compassion, and conviction that even the daily deaths of life can lead us to the stuff of spiritual resurrection time after time on our way to the fullness of life.
Clearly, Jesus’s last great gift to the church is to show us what it means to lose everything in life and still go on to more of it.
The Stations of the Cross, unlike many traditional private devotions – novenas, for instance – are not designed to beg God for favors or special attention of any kind. They are instead simply an excursion through the hard moments of life, the very ones that are demonstrated in the life of Jesus himself.
They are not valuable to us because they concentrate on suffering, as if life were a burden to be carried, a problem to be solved, rather than a grace to be lived to the edges, drunk to the dregs, squeezed dry of learnings and insights and wisdom. Instead they give us a model of how to live life when our own struggles are unavoidable and life seems most oppressive, most unfair, most impossible to bear.
Then it is the Stations of the Cross that remind us again that there is new life at the end of every daily death.
Knowing that Jesus, too, has gone the way of injustice, fatigue, failure, public rejection, and loss before us gives our own present struggles new hope and new light.
But suffering is not all or only or even primarily what the Stations of the Cross are really about. We are not, after all, the people of the Cross. We are the people of the Empty Tomb, Alleluia people, the people who know that every step we take leads to new life, however bleak, however distressing our situation seems at the time. It is in faithful and lifelong attention to the Stations of the Cross that we may come to see that at every abject junction of life we are being called to look again, to deal with life with fresh and untried capacities, to discover dauntless ways of dealing with pain and coming to wholeness again. The stations are about finding in the life of Jesus a deeper model of how to deal with the torment, the loss, the rejections, and the injustice that are weighing us down, crushing our spirits, challenging our faith.
We pay the Stations of the Cross in both good times and bad in order to learn how to live. Then, as the years go by, we may come more and more to realize in ourselves a life lived in hope, not despair; in courage, not in fear; in an awareness of blessings rather than locked into a tomb of bitterness.
Art by Janet McKenzie
The Passion of the Christ
This interpretation, a quiet glimpse into the humanity of Christ, does not acknowledge the spectacle that surely accompanies Jesus to his death. The exuberant din from the gathered masses and street noise made by excited children and barking dogs surely assaulted his mind and thoughts – the sounds of life soon to be denied to him.
Here the cross is not the familiar wooden version, large enough to bear a man’s weight with nails big enough to support a person – a cross able to snuff out a life. The cross in this series appears only as a dark horizontal or vertical form, one Jesus struggles to pick up and keep upright as he falls. Although a reference to the cross is an essential component of the Passion, with meaning beyond simply a place to die, my focus is on Jesus.
Mary’s presence is the counterbalance to Christ’s suffering. It is she, his Blessed Mother, who reaches for him, caressing his face in their final goodbye. In that moment it is as though they are alone, her love for him so exquisite that it blocks out all else. And, after Jesus is taken down from the cross she mourns, cradling her son close to her heart as she did so long ago.
Surely Jesus was in prayer, in conversation with his Father, as he approached his death. Prayer, our intimate dialogue with God, belongs singularly and privately to each one of us, and this is the essence behind this work.
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