This devotion, also called the Way of the Cross, goes back to the early centuries of the Church. Egeria, a third century pilgrim from Spain to the Holy Land, recorded how people gathered with the bishop late Holy Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane; and, over the next several hours processed from there, through Jerusalem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb.
Over time, specific places came to be identified with episodes in Jesus’carrying of the cross – meeting Simon of Cyrene, the women mourning, etc. The Franciscans, to whom guardianship of the holy places was entrusted in 1342, fostered the devotion of tracing Jesus’ journey to Golgotha. The number of stations varied depending on which friar led the group, but the path quickly became known as the Via Dolorosa, or Sorrowful Way.
Because many Europeans couldn’t hope to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, the Via Dolorosa was recreated on the grounds of European monasteries and convents. Some religious orders sent members to measure the exact distance between stations! Artistic representations of the events were then painted or chiseled as an aid the faithful. In 1731, Pope Clement XII extended an indulgence to those who made a way of the cross consisting of fourteen stations, and from that point on fourteen has been their number. Clement’s successor, Benedict XIV, encouraged all priests to have the stations erected in their parishes. We see the success of his efforts whenever we attend Mass.
Making the Way of the Cross is a way for us to meditate on Jesus’ Passion. Ideally we should bring our own “crosses” to the devotion and unite our difficulties to Jesus’. At each point in his journey there is a lesson for us, some element to which we can connect our lives. The fourteen traditional stations are:
- Jesus is condemned to death
- He receives the cross
- He falls the first time
- He meets his mother
- Simon of Cyrene helps carry the cross
- Veronica wipes his face
- He falls the second time
- He meets the mourning women
- He falls the third time
- He is stripped of his garments
- He is nailed to the cross
- He dies
- He is taken down from the cross
- He is laid in the tomb
Those familiar with Scripture will of course wonder about the inclusion of events not narrated therein: three falls, Jesus meeting his mother, Veronica wiping of his face. The first two points are merely matters of deduction: To require Simon of Cyrene’s help carrying the cross, Jesus had to be in a weakened condition, and undoubtedly suffered falls. John’s Gospel tells us that the Blessed Mother was at the foot of the cross. Wouldn’t she and Jesus have exchanged words, or at least have locked eyes, at some point during his carrying of the Cross? Veronica wiping Jesus’ face however, does not appear in the written record until the third century. While it could be historical, a surviving unwritten tradition, I tend to view it as naturally flowing from we Christians’ love for our Lord – our desire to give him some measure of relief during his way of sorrow.
You are certainly free to develop your own stations of the cross too. In both 1991 and 1994, John Paul II departed from the traditional fourteen:
- Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane
- His betrayal by Judas
- Condemnation by the Sanhedrin
- Peter’s denial
- Condemnation by the people
- Crowning with thorns and clothing in purple.
- Carrying the cross.
- Simon of Cyrene
- Meeting the women of Jerusalem
- Nailed to the Cross
- Words to the thief
- Jesus’ words to his mother
- Jesus dies
- He is buried.
May the Lord grant you a profitable Good Friday, my friends.