Four questions about the Stations of the Cross

  • Questions 217 – 220, from Simon, United Kingdom

    I want you to do a Q&A on the stations of the cross.

    Sure, no problem.

    Question 217 – What are they and what is their significance?

    The stations of the cross, also known as the ‘Way of the Cross’, are found in some Christian traditions as a way of communicating the events leading up to the death of Jesus. Through art or statues they represent stages of the story of the last hours of Jesus’ life. Traditionally, worshippers would move from station to station, stopping at each one, following the chronology of the story. There are 14 stages officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church:

    1 – Jesus is sentenced by Pilate

    2 – Jesus is made to carry the cross

    3 – Jesus stumbles and falls for the first time

    4 – Jesus meets his mother, Mary, who is in the watching crowd

    5 –Simon of Cyrene is dragged from the crowd to carry the cross for the rest of the journey, as Jesus is unable to walk on with it

    6 – St Veronica wipes Jesus’ brow with her napkin. (This in turn led to a tradition that an image of Jesus’ face was preserved on the napkin.)

    7 – Jesus falls for a second time

    8 – Jesus tells the women of Jerusalem not to shed tears for him

    9 – Jesus falls for a third time

    10 – The soldiers strip Jesus of his clothes

    11 – Jesus is nailed to the cross

    12 – Jesus dies

    13 – After the death is confirmed, Jesus’ body is taken down from the cross

    14 – Jesus is laid in the tomb in the garden that is donated by Joseph of Arimathea

    Each step is significant, as worshippers would pray and/or meditate at each station. Depending where this happened there may be particular prayers to be said at each station.

    Question 218 – Where did they come from?

    The stations are almost all drawn from the accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion as found in the four gospels. However, the story of St. Veronica is not found in any Gospel account. It was found in an apocryphal work called the ‘Gospel of Nicodemus’, although the story is thought to be a later insertion into that Gospel. The cloth Veronica used to wipe Jesus’ brow allegedly became marked with an image of his face. This cloth has been venerated as a relic in Rome since the eighth century. Traditionally, Veronica is the Latinised version of Bernice, and she gave the cloth to Pope Clement before being martyred in the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, ‘Bernice’, in turn, may have been the woman healed by Jesus because she had an issue of blood (Matthew chapter 9, verse 20-22).

    The stations of the cross began to be used in medieval times as an aid to prayer and worship. They would be inside a church, or set along the road leading to a shrine or church building. Praying at each station could earn an ‘indulgence’ (like spiritual credit that could release a soul from purgatory), and was regarded as a form of pilgrimage.

    Question 219 – Why are there two sets (traditional and scriptural) and does one set have more value than the other?

    As mentioned previously, the traditional fourteen stations include events and characters that are not present in the Gospel accounts. A Scriptural ‘way of the cross’ would omit some of the falls and the story of St Veronica.

    Question 220 – Why do Protestants and evangelicals tend to ignore them?

    During the Protestant Reformation there was a general move away from iconography and statues, which were regarded as ‘graven images’ by the more extreme Protestant groups. There was a general concern that people would worship the image rather than what was represented by the image. John Bunyan, the Puritan who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, made this point, when the character Christian is freed from the weight of his sins at the cross and remarks that the tomb and cross are blessed, but it’s better to bless the Man who was “put to shame for me”[1]. There was also a theological emphasis on the Risen Christ, with an ‘empty cross’ the preferred symbol for evangelicals.

    In Britain, many statues and other images were removed from churches and destroyed during the Reformation. Although there remains a ‘Catholic’ wing of the Church of England, denominations rising from non-conformist churches have generally regarded the stations of the cross as suspiciously Roman Catholic and have avoided them. However, in recent times Christians from the evangelical tradition have become more relaxed towards artistic depictions of Christ and the crucifixion. Many evangelicals were supportive of the feature film The Passion of the Christ, even though this included the stations of the cross as part of the script. This was barely commented on by evangelical film reviewers at the time, although this could be due to the reviewers not recognising the symbols rather than an acceptance of them.



    [1] Quoted in Wakefield, ‘The Stations of the Cross’ in A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, SCM, 1983

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