Walking in the Footsteps of Jesus

March 07, 2007

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Godfried Cardinal Danneels (Belgium) once warned against the stripping of Catholic liturgical and devotional life to the bare minimum.  Not so long ago, it was considered spiritually unsophisticated to celebrate the devotional life of the Catholic church, e.g., novenas, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, to Mary and the Saints, Benediction, and among other things, Stations of the Cross.  The point Cardinal Danneels made was that Catholicism is a religion of flesh and blood, sanctified by the incarnation of  God, that is, by the fact that God took on our flesh and blood and became human.  How then could this faith be reduced to a mere intellectual exercise?  Devotions are not accidental to the ethos of Catholicism; on the contrary, they are essential.

Devotions are those religious exercises, often of an affective nature, which lead to greater emotional rootedness in the faith.  Most devotions consist of some physical act, ranging from walking hundreds of miles while praying to simply lighting candles or touching the foot of a statue of a saint.  Devotions often are very much connected to the sensitivities and the specific characteristics of different ethnic groups or cultures.

The Stations of the Cross, in its different cultual incarnations, is one devotion that has been embraced throughout the Catholic world and is gaining popularity, even in those countries where Stations had fallen into disuse.  To be able to meditate on those last moments in the life of Jesus and to identify with him as a human being who suffered and died an awful death is very powerful to many Catholics.  This experience allows for human emotions to be released and sanctified, which otherwise might linger in the dark crevasses of our sub-conscience.

The origin of this practice goes back to the Patrisitc custom of visiting the Holy sites in Jerusalem.  Early pilgrims to the Holy City marked the last moments in Jesus' life by prayerfully stopping at all the sites associated with the suffering and death of Jesus.  When the devotionally inclined Franciscans took over the care of the sacred sites in Jerusalem in 1342, the custom of praying the Stations of the Cross sprang up all over the European continent in a multiplicity of formats with different numbers and names for each one of the stations.  It was not until the 18th century that the 14 stations became the norm.

Since the mid-20th century, a fifteenth station has been added in many churches, as theologians claimed that the resurrection completes the cycle and that without it, the other stations makes no sense.  In addition, Pope John Paul II has proposed alternative Stations of the Cross (15 of them) that are biblically based.  He celebrated these for the first time at the Coliseum in Rome on Good Friday, 1991. 

The Biblical Stations are:

1.     Jesus prays in the Garden of Olives
2.     Jesus is betrayed by Judas
3.     Jesus is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin
4.     Jesus is denied by Peter
5.     Jesus is judged by Pilate
6.     Jesus is flogged and crowned with thorns
7.     Jesus carries his cross
8.     Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene
9.     Jesus encounters the women of Jerusalem
10.   Jesus is crucified
11.   Jesus promises to welcome the good thief into heaven
12.   Jesus speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple
13.   Jesus dies on the cross
14.   Jesus is placed in the tomb
15.   Jesus is raised from the dead

The Traditional Stations are:

1.    Jesus is condemned to death by Pilate
2.    Jesus carries his cross
3.    Jesus falls for the first time
4.    Jesus meets his mother
5.    Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene
6.    Veronica wipes Jesus' face
7.    Jesus falls the second time
8.    Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
9.    Jesus falls the third time
10.  Jesus is stripped of his garment
11.  Jesus is nailed to the cross
12.  Jesus dies on the cross
13.  Jesus is taken down from the cross
14.  Jesus is laid in the tomb
15.  Jesus rises from the dead

Johan van Parys is Director of Liturgy and the Sacred Arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, MN.


Advent: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Christmas: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Season (Part I and Part II)
Epiphany: The Spirituality of and Environment for the Solemnity  (Part I and Part II)
Lectio Divina-Visio Divina
On Becoming the Paschal Mystery (Part I, Part II, and Part III)
The Fundamental Virtues of Liturgical Architecture
We Are the Body of Christ

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