Over the past several weeks, members of the Church of the Heavenly Rest have been participating in a Lenten program on Wednesday night called “Near the Cross: Exploring the Passion through Many Lenses.” Every week, we have looked at the death of Jesus from a different perspective, including Scripture, visual art, and music. Last night, we gathered in the nave of Heavenly Rest and gained a liturgical perspective of the Passion by doing the Stations of the Cross.
The Stations of the Cross is an adaptation of the custom of offering of prayer at a series of places in Jerusalem traditionally associated with our Lord’s passion and death. In most cases, the congregation processes around the building to designated places in the church, each of which represents a different event from Jesus’ final hours. There are, for instance, stations that mark the moment when Jesus is condemned by Pilate, the moment the cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene, the moment when Jesus’ dies on the cross, and so on. Interestingly, there are also stations for events that are not attested to in Scripture: the moment that a woman wipes the face of Jesus, the moment when Jesus falls, and the the moment when Jesus meets his afflicted mother. While the idea of commemorating events in the life of Jesus that do not occur in Scripture may make some uncomfortable, the Stations of the Cross is not about giving a factual presentation of the Passion, it is about allowing participants to experience how the Passion might have felt. In this regard, the Scriptural allusions selected for the Stations are not quotations from the gospels, but draw from the entire bible. The station where the body of Jesus is placed in the arms of his mother (one of the non-Scriptural stations) is a good example:
All you who pass by, behold and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow. My eyes are spent with weeping; my soul is in tumult; my heart is poured out in grief because of the downfall of my people. “Do not call me Naomi (which means Pleasant), call me Mara (which means Bitter); for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.”
In this station, the words of the Lamentations of Jeremiah and Naomi’s lament from the book of Ruth are put on the lips of a mother who has lost her baby boy. Though we cannot know what Jesus’ mother was thinking as he was crucified, the Stations of the Cross invites us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in Mary’s place.
I’ll be honest; I have always found the Stations of the Cross to be challenging. Not only have I been uncomfortable with commemorating non-Scriptural events, Stations of the Cross also has a tendency to make me physically uncomfortable. By the end of the devotion, the small of my back begins to ache and I start limping on account of my bum knee. And in some ways, this is the point of the devotion. The Stations of the Cross connects us to the death of Jesus in a deeply physical way; it invites us to bring the Passion of our Lord into our bodies. I don’t mean to suggest that our aches mirror the pain that Jesus suffered; rather, our embodiment of the Passion helps us to understand it on another level. This is part of the reason that we are invited to fast during Lent. When we make Lent part of our physical nature, we have the opportunity to connect to God’s love for us in a new and different way. Rather than attempting to understand it, Lent invites us to feel the grace and love of God.