In every Catholic church I’ve ever entered, there have been pieces of art hanging on the walls of the nave: the Stations of the Cross.
This traditional artwork, popular since the Middle Ages, is in reliefs of plaster, marble or even metal. Others are painted in oils or other media; some have even been rendered as mosaics. All depict the various “stations” along Christ’s way to Calvary – a pilgrimage in art, a blending of the sentient artistic imagination with the core of all we believe, that is, the redeeming power of the passion of our Savior, His death and His resurrection.
The practice of saying prayers before each of the 14 stations is one of the most moving of all Catholic devotional practices. It reiterates to us that ours is a faith of the senses. As children we came to know our God in the voices of our parents and teachers as they recalled the devotional practices of their own childhoods, and in voices crying out collectively and in private in the ancient prayers of our Church, as well as the spontaneous, immediate prayers of our own praises and petitions. We’ve also come to know our God in the visual artwork of so many masters, from Michelangelo, Botticelli, Da Vinci, to El Greco, Goya, Hoffman, and Murillo, among so many others, as well from anonymous pieces of stained glass in our churches to those heart wrenching stations that flank our pews.
As we walk to each station, we can hear the crowds mock Our Lord as He is condemned to death. We imagine the weight of His cross and we fall with Him. We hear His mother weeping in the crowd. Do we dare put ourselves in the place of Simon of Cyrene, who was made to carry the cross? We cannot help but remember a falling from grace in our lives and we find ourselves, too, in the crowd with the mournful women, their hearts breaking for their own children. It is loud and hot and unbearably sad. He falls again right in front of us, as we look on helplessly. He is stripped and we can feel the humiliation. We cringe as the nails go in. And yes, we watch the crucified One we love die above us. We weep. We hold His lifeless Body in our arms. We lay Him in His tomb.
The physicality of our religion is sometimes astounding. We move in ritual; we feel the water of baptism as we enter the Church; we see the morning light pierce the stained glass, the blue of Mary’s robe, the crimson of Christ’s garment fallen to the ground; we become aware of the aroma of incense as it envelopes us and rises like our prayers; we kneel and bow and stand and sing; we taste the transubstantiated Body and Blood of Jesus and we are filled by the sentient re-presentation of the greatest sacrifice the world has known.
In the Lenten season we move around the Church, stopping over and over (“statio” means stopping place) along the Via Dolorosa – lending in some imaginatively participatory, transfixing manner, our own body and spirit to the monumental act of love before us.
Some of the devotion is only in our tradition. But that doesn’t stop us for an instant. How many times did Jesus fall? His falling is but a powerful refrain in the ballad of His love. We do not know from the gospels that Jesus met His mother along the way, but that doesn’t stop us from feeling the clouded eyes of mother and Son lock, hers in abject misery, His in all-too-human degradation yet Divine and sacrificial Love. Do we know Veronica outside of these stations? That didn’t stop my wife, as she came into the Catholic Church, from taking a name she identified with like none other, Veronica, meaning “true image.” If my wife had been in that crowd, that is exactly what she would have done: she would have run to Him and wiped His weary countenance.
Every Friday during Lent in our churches someone – from priests, deacons, altar servers and many of the congregation – stops by 14 times (sometimes 15, when the Resurrection is added) to say their prayers, most likely the beloved words they know so well of St. Alphonsus Liguori as they start:
“We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You.” (genuflect)
“Because, by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world.” (Rise)
And a meditation ending in utter surrender to Jesus, the Man of Sorrows before us, with the words: “With all my heart I repent of ever having offended You. Grant that I may love You always; and then do with me as You will.”
Fred Gallagher is an author and editor-in-chief with Gastonia-based Good Will Publishers Inc.