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Rethinking the Stations of the Cross

The end-of-the-week snow squalls set the mood for our pensive Good Friday gathering where we re-envisioned the practice of the Stations of the Cross as a meditation on compassion for Jesus, ourselves, and others. Here again is my Good Friday message about the Stations and a gallery of the art we created!

Yesterday, I was watching a snow squall in April, a solid two weeks after the first day of Spring. And I was reminded of something I learned about the Anglo-Saxons, who were used to very bitter winters. They counted their years according to winters. So for example, in the epic poem Beowulf, Grendel terrorized Hrothgar’s kingdom for “twelve winters.” And in the Chronicles of the Anglo-Saxons, one Anglo-Saxon king was said to be “fifty winters old.” A medieval translation of the Gospel of John said that the temple was built in “forty-six winters.” And a medieval poem said that no one becomes wise before experiencing “a deal of winters in this world.” Surviving one winter is an accomplishment; surviving many winters brings wisdom.

The winter of 2020 felt like not one but many winters. There was of course the usual cold and gloom. But then added to that was the fear of contagion. The isolation of lockdown. And the grief of losing loved ones. The murder of George Floyd set off a new and uncertain season of reckoning with racism that continued through winter to this very day with the murder trial of Derek Chauvin. And just as we began to emerge from winter, a new series of mass shootings and racist violence broke out. I wonder what wisdom we have earned during this winter of many winters, what wisdom we will carry with us into the future.

The Christian tradition, which so far has survived for about 2000 winters, has wisely scheduled a period for reflecting on sin and mortality and death in winter so that our cold and gloomy surroundings embody our sober meditations. And because Lent links winter with spring, the seasons also embody our hope. The word “Lent” actually comes to us from the Anglo-Saxons. It means “springtime” and is derived from the Old English word “lencten” meaning to become longer. As we move through Lent the sun shines brighter and the days grow longer. We enter Lent through the dark sky of Ash Wednesday and we leave it through the sunshine of Easter morning.

A common practice for Lent is to walk the Stations of the Cross. This tradition began in the early days of Christianity when believers would trace the path that Jesus took through the streets of Jerusalem to feel closer to him. Eventually, markers were set up to identify each stop along the way. Pilgrims began traveling to Jerusalem to walk the path and stop at each station to meditate and pray. The journey was too expensive for most people so they found other ways to experience the stations. Devotional books about the stations could be read anywhere. And during the Middle Ages many European towns created their own Stations of the Cross through their own streets. Many churches today have Stations in their sanctuaries or outside in their gardens.

If Lent is supposed to move us from sorrow to hope, it may seem a little counterintuitive to practice the Stations of the Cross so near to the end, when we are supposed to be closest to hope. Many of us have been trained not to experience hope when reflecting on the death of Jesus because the messages we received were primarily about shame. We were taught that the suffering and death of Jesus was the only thing that would ease the anger of God who was so angry at us that he could not even bear to be in our presence. It was our fault that this happened to Jesus, it was as if we tortured and killed him ourselves, and shouldn’t we feel bad about that.

But what if - and hear me out here - the God who created us and loves us and wants us to flourish does not want us to feel shame when we meditate on the death of Jesus. What if instead God wants that meditation to increase our compassion. What if by meditating on the suffering of Jesus we understand our own pain and are moved with compassion for the suffering of others?

The goal of the pilgrims who traveled all that way was not to see the city of Jerusalem. They weren’t on vacation. The goal was to see Jesus, or as one mystic scholar puts it, to seek an “interior Jerusalem.” What might that look like for us, to map ancient Jerusalem onto our inward hearts, spirits, and minds?

We might start by thinking about the situation in the actual ancient Jerusalem. It was a political crisis, an abuse of power, where an empire had conquered and was occupying the home of Jesus and his people. In that context, there were the oppressors, the victims of oppression represented by Jesus, and his allies. As we move through the story, and see these characters, we may feel ourselves identifying with one of them.

In the actual Jerusalem there were victims of oppression. And in our interior Jerusalems, we are also sometimes persecuted like Jesus, innocent people who are unfairly targeted by religious and political systems; or like the two criminals who were unfairly punished with him; or like the poor servant who loses an ear to the disciple’s sword, an innocent bystander to events beyond his control; or like the women of Jerusalem who on top of everything they have already suffered now have to watch another member of their community murdered by the state; or like Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is losing her son to state violence that she cannot prevent.

In the actual Jerusalem there were open-hearted but sometimes imperfect allies. In our interior Jerusalems, we are sometimes like the sleeping disciples who cannot stay woke when things get dangerous; or like Peter who suddenly loses his courage when asked whether he stands with Jesus; or like Joseph of Arimathea who uses his relative wealth and privilege to care for Jesus; or like Simon of Cyrene who for awhile carries Jesus’ burden for him; or like the women who never gave in to fear, who never left Jesus’ side.

But we are not always innocent victims or imperfect allies. Sometimes in our interior Jerusalems we have to face the fact that we are acting as the oppressors like Judas who at the last minute abandons Jesus and re-aligns with the establishment; or like the religious leaders who clung to respectability by scapegoating Jesus; or like Pilate who smashed an innocent person with the power of the state; or like the soldiers who were just following orders.

The Stations of the Cross can turn our attention inward and they can also turn our attention outward to the world around us. I mentioned earlier the medieval towns that would set up their own stations. They would space out the stations exactly according to the number of steps between stations in Jerusalem, thereby mapping Jerusalem onto their own town. Except that when they were walking the stations they were not walking some imaginary, abstract idea of Jerusalem. They were walking their own streets, imagining what if these events happened in their own time and place. More recently, some churches have created stations of the cross to mark sites in their own neighborhoods where injustice, suffering, and evil were experienced. And in 2002, Pope John Paul II recruited journalists to write reflections for the Stations of the Cross that year so that they could highlight that the stations are not just about what Jesus experienced but are about those who suffer violently, innocently, needlessly, and in the cause of justice today. The Cross did not just happen in the past but is happening now.

This is why in our Commonwealth feeds we have been posting stations of the cross images from a diversity of artists. There are images from the US, Japan, Nigeria, and China; artists who are Christian and agnostic and Jewish; artists who are men and women; artists who are straight and artists who are queer. The Cross happens everywhere. But so does the resurrection. Mahatma Gandhi understood this so well. He said:

“It is better to allow our lives to speak for us than our words. God did not bear the cross only two thousand years ago. He bears it today, and he dies and is resurrected from day to day. It would be a poor comfort to the world if it had to depend on a historical God who died thousands of years ago. Do not, then, preach the God of history, but show him as he lives today through you.” - Mohandas K. Gandhi

The purpose of the Stations of the Cross is not to induce feelings of shame. But by putting ourselves into the story and spending time there, the stations help us to understand our own suffering and increase our empathy for others. They inspire us to show Christ to others by how Christ lives today through us.

As you reflect on your station and create your art, my prayer is that the Spirit of God will fill you not with a sense of shame but with a sense of responsibility - for yourself and for others. May this time help us all to walk a little closer with Jesus. May it fill us with hope as the days lengthen and get brighter.

Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation.

The old life has gone; a new life has begun.


- Mike

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