Christ Carries His Cross, El Greco

Sara and Justin Kraft

The Way of the Cross—A Lenten Reflection

The Church offers a great number of suggestions for spiritual progress during Lent. One common devotion is the Way of the Cross, which is more commonly referred to as the Stations of the Cross. This reflection will offer a brief review of the history of this devotion, provide a few practical tips for practicing the devotion during Lent, and leave you with a few words from Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI. 

A Short History

“The Church has always kept alive the memory of the words and the events of the last days of her Spouse and Lord, a loving although painful memory of the path Jesus walked from the Mount of Olives to the Mount of Calvary.”[1] 

Since the earliest days of the church, Christians have always held holy sites, the locations in which our Lord lived and acted in high esteem. Early church documents and archeological findings testify to the honor paid to these sites and demonstrate the long tradition of visiting religious sites and constructing churches in order to honor the events which took place in these locations. Testimony from as early as the 4th century describes three churches built on the hill of Golgotha and the procession between them that occurred there on certain days. While certainly not the modern form of the Stations of the Cross, this procession “with its chanting of psalms and close connection with the places of the Passion, is considered by some scholars an embryonic form of the future Way of the Cross.”[2]    

A more familiar form of the Way of the Cross arose during the middle ages amidst the context of the crusades which brought about a renewed interest in the holy sites of Jerusalem. In Europe, three saints, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Bonaventure of Bagnoregio were stirring the hearts of Christians through a renewed commitment to contemplative meditation. Abroad, the often maligned and misunderstood events of the crusades paved the way for a new era of pilgrimage in which “the attraction of the holy places gave rise to a desire to reproduce them locally”[3]. All of which would lay the foundation for the modern devotion.

Over the course of time, these contemplative practices began to take on local flavors. In time, and “Against the a background of devotion to the Passion of Christ, and recalling the path Jesus walked on his ascent to Mount Calvary, The Stations of the Cross as a pious practice was born directly from a sort of fusion of three devotions which spread mainly in Germany and in the Netherlands from the fifteenth century onwards”[4]. The modern form with the standard fourteen stations was recorded in Spain in the 17th century, although even today variations in the list of the stations exist.

For a more complete history of this devotion please visit the Vatican website to which the description above refers.

Practical Tips for Practicing the Way of the Cross

As noted above, even today a variety of forms of the Stations of the Cross are practiced and this variety only adds to the fruit of the devotion. Likewise, I would suggest that we can incorporate the devotion into our lives in a variety of ways. Therefore, below I am suggesting three ways you might try incorporating the Stations of the Cross into your prayer this Lent.

1. Participation in a Parish Celebration of the Stations of the Cross

Most parishes celebrate some form of the Stations of the Cross on a weekly basis during Lent. This communal celebration offers several benefits. First, it enters the action of prayer into our daily planner. How often do we intend to pray, and yet fail to make the time? Joining in a parish celebration of the Stations of the Cross provides a concrete time that we can commit to prayer. Secondly, Christianity is not an individual sport. Parish celebrations of the Stations of the Cross provide an opportunity for fellowship. Many parishes offer a simple meal or soup supper afterward. Coming together at these events provides an opportunity encourage one another, form deep bonds, and receive further inspiration.  If your parish celebration is held too late for your small children, consider mediating on the Stations of the Cross at home each Friday as a family.

2. Make a “Mini” Pilgrimage

The devotion of the Stations of the Cross is a devotion of pilgrims. Born first from those making spiritual journeys to the Holy Land, the Stations of the Cross are a way to make that journey locally. You too can make a physical journey. This Lent, pick up a copy of the Stations of the Cross (likely available online or for just a few dollars at a local Catholic bookstore) and take it with you on a hike or for a walk in a local park. As you hike, stop every so often and meditate on a different station for a few minutes. Let the physical exertion of your walk deepen your connection to the mysteries of each station. Are you breathing hard? How rapidly must Christ’s breath have flowed as he carried the cross up Calvary! Are your legs tired? What must the legs of Christ have felt as they gave way during the 1st fall, then the 2nd, and finally the 3rd fall? Even the smallest exertion can change the way you relate to Christ’s journey. If you are healthy and want to deepen the physical experience even further add fasting to the experience (although use prudence and error on the side of safety). Copies of the stations are available online and can be found at U.S Council of Catholic Bishops website; the Vatican website;  or EWTN.

3. Celebrate the Triduum with the Stations of the Cross

A final tip is to celebrate the Triduum with the Stations of the Cross. “The Easter Triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, reaches its high point in the Easter Vigil, and closes with Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday”[5]. While not technically part of Lent, these days comprise the culmination of our Lenten journey. As such they are the perfect setting to reflect on the events of Christ’s passion. Selecting 4 or 5 stations for meditation each day will help you walk step by step beside Christ until the resurrection at Easter. Through this practice, the Stations of the Cross will truly allow you to make each day a Holy day rather than getting lost in the hustle and bustle that leads up to Easter.

The Message of the Stations of the Cross

Finally, it might be fruitful to reflect on the words of the Holy Father Pope Benedict the XVI as we begin to meditate the Stations of Cross this Lent.

“Brothers and sisters, our gaze is frequently distracted by scattered and passing earthly interests; let us direct our gaze today toward Christ. Let us pause to contemplate his Cross. The Cross is the source of immortal life, the school of justice and peace, the universal patrimony of pardon and mercy… His nailed arms are open to each human being and they invite us to draw near to him, certain that he accepts us and clasps us in an embrace of infinite tenderness: ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself’ (Jn 12: 32).

Through the sorrowful Way of the Cross, the men and women of all ages, reconciled and redeemed by Christ's Blood, have become friends of God, sons and daughters of the Heavenly Father...

Dear friends: After having lived together Jesus' Passion, let us this evening allow his sacrifice on the Cross to question us. Let us permit him to put our human certainties in crisis. Let us open our hearts to him. Jesus is the truth that makes us free to love. Let us not be afraid: upon dying, the Lord saved sinners, that is, all of us. The Apostle Peter wrote: Jesus ‘himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed’ (I Pt 2: 24). This is the truth of Good Friday: on the Cross, the Redeemer has restored to us the dignity that belongs to us, has made us adoptive sons and daughters of God whom he has created in his image and likeness. Let us remain, then, in adoration before the Cross. O Christ, crucified King, give us true knowledge of you, the joy for which we yearn, the love that fills our heart, thirsty for the infinite. This is our prayer for this evening, Jesus, Son of God, who died for us on the Cross and was raised up on the third day. Amen.”[6]



[1] Office For The Liturgical Celebrations Of The Supreme Pontiff, The Way Of The Cross Presentation
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] Eighteen Questions On The Paschal Triduum
[6] Excerpts from the Good Friday Address by Pope Benedict XVI at the celebration of the Way of the Cross at the Coliseum, Rome Italy Marcy 21, 2008