The practice of re-enacting or visually representing the Stations of the Cross is very old indeed. The fourteen traditional Stations mark the passages from the moment Jesus was condemned to death until his burial in the tomb. To experience the Stations is not only to remember the gospel story of Jesus' crucifixion, but also is a way for us to reflect on the human condition of evildoing and suffering. The Stations are mirrors in which we see aspects of ourselves that we avoid confronting. By looking into the mirror that is the Passion story, we see truths about ourselves that are not only painful to behold, but also, paradoxically, are the means of our salvation. Transformation begins with a clear-eyed encounter with difficult reality.
There are many ways to describe and interpret the Stations of the Cross. They have always been much more than a simple rendition of the story found in the gospels. Some of the Stations correspond to actual passages in the New Testament accounts of the Passion. But other Stations have no corresponding verses in Scripture. Jesus' encounter with Veronica, for example, at Station number 6, is based on a legend that developed long after the biblical era. The Stations have always been evocative and interpretive, rather than simply historical, in nature.
And so it is that I offer a free-spirited, contemporary expression of the power and meaning in this ancient Christian tradition.
Station One: Jesus is condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. ART: Picture of a prisoner.
Pontius Pilate was sent to Israel to establish law and order. To make the trains run on time. To keep taxes flowing, to police the streets, to keep the light posts free of handbills and graffiti. From Pilate's point of view, Jesus was in the way of law and order. Sure, he was innocent of the crimes of which he was accused. But Jesus had given the impression of lawlessness and disorder, and that was enough to persuade Pilate that he should be eliminated. Whom have we sacrificed for the sake of "law and order" in our society today? -- the juvenile offenders we now send to adult courts and adult jails? -- the drug addicts who are treated as criminals instead of as victims of a disease?
Station Two: The cross is laid upon Jesus. ART: a series of crosses ñ one made of little guns and tanks and warplanes, another made of pills, another made of toy cars.
Where is the cross? The cross is anything that we think will save us, but which crucifies us instead. The cross is anything in which we put our ultimate trust and faith and hope, which in turn betrays usÖ. The military might we hope will save us, but instead entangles us in terrible overseas wars. The medical technology in which we put our faith, but then addicts us or torments us with bad side-effects. The vehicles we think we canít live without, which then ensnare us in traffic jams. The Romans thought the cross would save their Empire, frightening people into submission. But this brutality contributed to the fall of the Empire. The early Christians did something very radical: they turned a symbol of torture and state power into a symbol of personal and social liberation. How can you turn your cross into a sign of liberation?
Station Three: Jesus falls for the first time as he carries his cross toward Golgotha. ART: a big rock.
Jesus said (Matthew 21:42-44) that the stone of stumbling - referring to himself - would become the cornerstone, the most important stone in the building of the new Kingdom of Heaven. We all trip on the block, and get busted -- and while this is painful for us, it is also what "levels" us all, rich and poor, strong and weak, famous and unknown, and puts us in our place. Think of the many things that trip us along life's way -- we are busted as we fall over the blocks of ego, of desire, of greed, of ambition, of lust, of anger, of prejudice. Think of the ways these stumbling blocks are revealed in our common life. But there is the promise that our stones of stumbling can be transformed into cornerstones of new life on the other side of the crossÖ.
Station Four. Jesus encounters his mother, Mary, as he carries his cross. ART: an image of the Virgin Mary.
Imagine the agony of Jesus' mother as she encounters her son on his way to his death. Remember the inevitable pain of parenting and being parented -- the shared suffering that always comes between mother or father and child. Take consolation in knowing that this suffering is universal -- it is inseparable from the human condition. To love our children, to love our parents, will someday and somehow bring us pain. Yet without that pain we would also be without the love that this most basic of human bonds brings with it. At this station, remember that despite its' sometimes terrible price, love is worth the suffering that comes with it. And remember also the ways we can honor and give relief to our parents and children. How can we be instruments of healing and reconciliation in our families? Where have we gone wrong, and where can we now go right, as parents and as children?
Station Five: Simon of Cyrene is ordered to carry the cross for Jesus. ART: Image of "jornaleros" -- mostly Hispanic day-laborers waiting to be hired for menial jobs, to be paid in cash with no benefits. Simon of Cyrene was visiting Jerusalem from Africa -- he was there to celebrate Passover. The Romans built their empire on slave labor. They had a law that allowed their soldiers to press anyone into temporary service, to carry a load for a soldier or to do day labor for imperial purposes. Simon was drafted on the spot to carry the cross for Jesus, who, after being beaten severely, was too weak to carry it himself. Who does our dirty work in America? Where do the people who do our dirty work come from -- what do we owe them, besides cash at the end of a day's hard labor that our citizens won't do themselves? Where do they live, how do they live? And what is our responsibility as citizens to them, as mostly undocumented non-citizens? What would happen if "illegal aliens" disappeared from our community tomorrow? Who would do our dishes, wash our laundry, dig our ditches, lift our loads? And who else carries our cross? What of the people who work under terrible conditions in third world countries to produce the goods that stock the stores? What do we owe them? Are we giving them what we owe them, for all that they do for us?
Station 6: Veronica wipes Jesus' face with a cloth as he passes by. ART: A mirror with a ghostly image of Jesus drawn in grease pen on it.
This legendary story says that Veronica -- whose name in Latin means "true image" -- wiped Jesus' face with a cloth, and in so doing an image of his sweaty and bloody face was left on the cloth, which became a legendary religious relic in the Middle Ages. Can you see, in the mirror, the true image of the Christ -- in your own face, your own body? Can you see the Christ in everyone? Because the Christ is the human encounter with God -- the human expression of divinity. Within each of us, through each of us, is to be found the spark of divinity, an encounter with God. How do the people around you look to you now, as you intentionally seek to find the Veronica - the true image - of Christ's face in each of their faces?
Station Seven: Jesus falls a second time on his way to Golgotha. ART: An old shoe in an awkward position.
In what ways are you ìfallenî? What high positions ñ physically, socially, emotionally ñ have you ìfallenî from, and how did and does it feel? Can you dust yourself off and keep going?
Station Eight: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. ART: A bubbling fountain of water.
Jesus saw his own story, his own suffering, in a much wider context. He had a sense of history, and of his place in it. Something much larger than the fate of his own life was at stake. In our culture, as in the biblical era, women have been stereotyped as the "feelers" -- the gender that expresses emotion, that cries. As you -- whether male or female -- walk these Stations of the Cross, may you feel all the emotions of the Passion -- may you cry real tears not only for Jesus, but for yourself, for your fellow citizens. What is the suffering of our society? Let yourself feel it and know it, body and soul. And what is your place in history? What larger drama gives context for your life? What is your part in shaping the story of your society? -- in bringing greater harmony and justice to its citizens, now and in the future?
Station Nine: Jesus falls a third time. ART: A ìfallingî dollar.
What is the foundation of your life? Where do you find real security? In your net worth, or in the practice of the presence of God in your soul? What is the foundation of our society -- is it based only on the value of cash and stocks and bonds and real estate? Or something else -- the values of charity and cooperation, the values that Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount? What are the foundations of society? Trust and hope and mutual care and respect? Or greed and speculation and exploitation? Which foundations will fall, and which will stay upright in bad times and good?
Station Ten: The soldiers strip Jesus of his garments and draw lots to see which one gets his clothing. ART: a ìdieî (dice) and six boxes numbered 1-6, one of which has a rough garment in it.
When have you been stripped of all that protected you? How did it feel? When and how have you left others naked -- stripped others of their privacy and their dignity? In words or deeds, how have you embarrassed or insulted others, and made light of their suffering? We can be so cruel, both purposefully and unwittingly Ö exposing others to insult and injury, because of our own pride or jealousy or anger. What words have we said, and deeds have we done, to insult the body of Christ in other people? And what can we do to right our wrongs, and restore them to dignity? Roll the die and see if you win the garment ñ see how it feels to do as the Roman soldiers didÖ.
Station Eleven: Jesus is crucified on the cross. ART: A crucifix (with Jesus on it)
Jesus was subjected to death by torture -- a slow, agonizing execution that was meant to frighten Roman subjects into obedient submission. The Romans intended the cross to be a symbol of the consequences of defying the power of the empire. But Jesus transformed that symbol by dying on the cross. And the early Christians understood what it meant: that the Roman empire showed its weakness through the cross. The Christians turned the cross into a symbol of the impotence of Rome. Through the crucifixion, an alternative empire was established on earth -- in direct contradiction to the empire of Rome. Through the crucifixion, God's empire of peace, justice, equality, and charity came into being in a new form, a new way. Where do you see signs of this emerging empire? What are you doing, and what can you be doing, to complete the establishment of God's empire on earth? What are you doing, as a citizen, a consumer, a worker, a friend, to continue what Jesus started -- turning the world upside down, turning a symbol of state power into a symbol of people-and-God power? How can your actions change the cross from an instrument of torture into a sign of hope?
Station Twelve: Jesus dies on the cross. ART: A serpent on a pole. In what ways do you deny your mortality? How do you hide from it? In what way is this denial itself a kind of death? What do you think death is like, what is it all about? How does your death fit in your life? How does it motivate what you do, how does it shape who you are? What life, what liveliness, would come if you lost your fear and denial of death? The Christian gospel tells us that the death of Jesus was the turning point, the moment when salvation came to humanity. Somehow, by facing death, we come to life. The people of Israel, wandering in their desert exodus, began to despair of their fate and were then punished with a plague of snakes that bit them and killed some of them. Moses cried out to God for help, and God told him to put up a bronze serpent on a pole and have the people gaze at it, and thus be healed of the snakebites. The gospel of John says that as the serpent was lifted on the pole to save Israel, so would Jesus have to be lifted up in order to save humanity. The symbol of serpents on a pole is now the symbol of medicine Ö the bronze serpent was a sort of spiritual homeopathy. Likewise the cross is spiritual homeopathy for the human condition of suffering and mortality. By gazing at the death of Jesus, we see our own death, and are thus liberated from it, into life.
Station Thirteen: Jesus' body is taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea, a powerful Jew who risked his reputation and even his life to offer respect for Jesus' life by honoring his body after death. ART: A chalice.
Joseph of Arimathea arranged for Jesus' body to be lovingly wrapped and buried. Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea had the cup that Jesus used in the last supper, and that he put the cup under Jesus' wound when he was speared by the soldiers, and gathered Jesus' blood. He then took the cup -- the Holy Grail -- with him to England, where he threw it into the well at Glastonbury to protect it. Jesus died a profoundly shameful death, naked on the cross, but his body and blood were treated with the greatest care and respect after his death. How do you, how can you, show respect for the body of Christ? How do you, how can you, show care and respect for your own body? How can you give loving attention to the bodies of the people around you? How do you, how can you, show loving respect for the body that is the earth -- the natural environment and ecological balance around you?
Station Fourteen: Jesus' body is placed in the tomb. ART: A rock partly covering a hole.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Jesus' body returned to the earth from which it came. But that which was put into the earth came out of the earth three days later, transformed. The three days correspond to the three trimesters of human gestation. Jesus' body went in, but the eternal and ever-present Christ came out. The pain and terror and horror of crucifixion went in, but hope and promise came out. Jesus' body went into the tomb, but the Christian church came out, three days later. What new life will come from the parts of your life that have died, or must die? What new life will come to our people, after we say goodbye to the ways of our common life that are unjust and unhealthy? What peace will come after the Passion -- those Stations of the Cross that we all must walk, both in our everyday lives, as well as in this symbolic journey we have just completed?