Mike Aquilina

History’s Stations

Friday March 21st 2008, 9:00 am

The Way of the Cross is the inevitable way of a Christian’s heart.

Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine the Catholic Church without the devotion that goes by that name.

It goes by other names, too: “The Stations of the Cross,” “Via Crucis,” “Via Dolorosa” — or just “the stations.”

The practice has settled, for several centuries now, into brief meditations on 14 scenes from the suffering and death of Jesus Christ.

Why are Christians drawn so strongly to this devotion? Because Jesus wanted us to be. “Then He said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Lk 9:23).

When Jesus speaks the words “if” or “unless,” Christians listen carefully. For then Our Lord is laying down the conditions of our discipleship — the prerequisites of heaven.

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The Way of the Cross developed gradually in the life of the Church. In the Roman world, the cross was a “stumbling block” (Gal 5:11). Crucifixion was a most humiliating form of execution: a man was stripped naked and suspended in a public place; he was pelted with rocks and trash and left to suffocate slowly while passersby mocked his agony.

Crucifixion was still a common occurrence during the first three centuries of Christianity, so it was not easy for believers, like St. Paul, to “boast” (Gal 6:14) of the cross. For people who had seen criminals crucified, the cross could not have been an easy thing to love.

Yet love it they did. Devotion to the cross pervades the earliest Christian writings. And the earliest records of pilgrimage show us that Christians endured great hardships — traveling thousands of miles, from France and Spain to Jerusalem — so that they could walk the streets of Jesus’ suffering: the Way of the Cross.

The Jerusalem liturgy of Holy Week memorialized the events of Jesus’ Passion. On Holy Thursday, the bishop led the procession from the Garden of Gethsemane to Calvary. The fourth-century practice is well attested by St. Cyril of Jerusalem and by Egeria, the Bordeaux Pilgrim.

After Christianity was legalized in 313 A.D., pilgrims regularly thronged Jerusalem. The Way of the Cross became one of the standard routes for pilgrims and tourists … READ MORE.