Prayer at the Stations of the Cross is a great devotion, especially during Lent, because it allows us to follow Jesus along the road to Calvary. Pope John Paul II used to say them every Friday during the year as well. If we were considering the crucifixion of someone else, we could do it once and file it away as an historical thing that we know something about. So what is so special about Jesus’ crucifixion?
Well, Benedict XVI explained it this way: “What on the outside is simply brutal violence – the Crucifixion – from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. . . .Violence is transformed into love, and death into life.” This is the event of God’s total self-giving. This is what is so unique.
It involved a sinless human being united to the person of the Divine Son who eternally returns all that he is to the Father in love. He does this right here in our history. Nothing will ever be the same again. As we walk along Jesus’ journey of suffering, we begin to see: we get spiritual clues to total self-giving in love from the one who has gone before us. Catholicism expresses that infinite selfless love of God.
In Saint Alphonsus Liguori’s version of the stations, one of my favorites, we pray: “You have made this journey to die for me with unspeakable love.” This is the love that burns eternally in the Godhead and it is being poured out right here on earth. Moreover, walking alongside this miracle of real love as it happens is Mary, Jesus’ Mother, who has to watch her son being tormented to death. Hence we sing the verses of the Stabat Mater as we move from station to station.
After the first station, for example, we sing: “At the cross her station keeping, Stood the mournful Mother weeping, Close to Jesus to the last.”
Then we slowly pray our way through the stages of Jesus’ suffering: Pilate condemns Jesus; Jesus accepts his Cross; Jesus falls the first time; Jesus meets his mother; Simon helps Jesus carry the cross and so on.
Everything else is shut out for a while. We focus on this sad procession of a man going to his death, and going because of us. You can feel the preoccupations of the day being thrust aside as we focus all of our mind and heart on this pivotal event in human history.
The rhythm of prayer is the same at each station. In Ligouri’s version, at the eleventh station, Christ is nailed to the cross, the leader says: “We adore you O Christ and we bless you.” We genuflect – this prayer involves body, mind, and heart. It also unifies body, mind, and heart as our words and actions express the same thing. Here the Christian attitude is summed up in one phrase. We then respond: “because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
This is the mystery that radiates through the whole world, whether the world likes it or not. In fact the world’s opposition put Christ on the cross in the first place.
Then as we have disposed ourselves, the leader sets the scene: “Consider Jesus, thrown down upon the cross, He stretched out His arms and offered to His eternal Father the sacrifice of His life for our salvation. They nailed His hands and feet, and then, raising the cross, left Him to die in anguish.”
And we respond: “My despised Jesus, / nail my heart to the cross / that it may always remain there to love You and never leave You again. / I love You more than myself; / I am sorry for ever having offended You. / Never permit me to offend You again. / Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me as You will.”
We are expressing the deepest sentiments of our soul. Or perhaps not? If the latter, then the words can dispose our soul so that this communal prayer molds our interior life.
If you think about it, going through this prayer we see what interior life is really like. We have the representation of the life of Jesus in front of us and we are gathered in adoration and prayer. By contemplating Jesus, our souls learn to stretch and take in the wonder of salvation.
We don’t cut Jesus’ expression of love down to our size; with his help we expand to his size. So “that Christ may dwell in you hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17-19)