Stations of the Cross

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Stations of the Cross

Way of the Cross

The Stations of the Cross, or Way of the Cross, is a prayer and meditation practice particularly popular among Roman Catholics. The stations consist of fourteen scenes from Jesus' trial and crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). These are generally represented in artwork or visual symbols of some kind. As worshipers pass by each station they meditate on Jesus' suffering and sacrificial death. They also reflect on the example each incident sets for Christians living today and offer prayers. In Jerusalem Christians observe the Stations of the Cross by walking through the city itself, stopping to pray and meditate at sites where the fourteen incidents may have taken place. Many consider walking the Stations of the Cross to be an especially appropriate way to observe Good Friday.


Devotion to the Stations of the Cross began in Jerusalem. An old Christian legend traces this observance back to Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary, who was said to revisit the scenes of her son's suffering daily after his death (see Mary, Blessed Virgin). In the late fourth century Egeria, a western European pilgrim to the Holy Land, recorded the fact that Jerusalem Christians honored Good Friday with a procession from the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem, to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial (see also Royal Hours). From that period until the arrival of the European Crusaders around the turn of the twelfth century, historical records are spotty. Nevertheless, a tenth-century document recorded a Good Friday procession that stopped at six sites between the Mount of Olives and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

In the very last years of the eleventh century men from all over Europe, responding to a call from Pope Urban II, formed military battalions and converged on the Holy Land. Their stated mission was to wrest military and political control of Palestine away from its Muslim inhabitants and to install Christian rulers dedicated to safeguarding Christian holy sites and guaranteeing Europeans access to them. Called the Crusades, this series of military campaigns lasted till the thirteenth century. When the Crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, they found no public processions on Good Friday. Instead Jerusalem Christians prayed in the chapels of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on that day. The church, a site of intense Christian devotion since early times, was itself a ruin. Destroyed in 1009, it had been only partially reconstructed. The energetic Crusaders rebuilt the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and erected many new churches over sites associated with the events in Christian scripture before leaving Palestine at the end of the thirteenth century.

In that same century Franciscan monks arrived in the Holy Land. By the fourteenth century they had been entrusted by the pope to care for sites of Christian devotion in Palestine. The Franciscan monks also dedicated themselves to aiding Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land. They served as guides to many generations of European Christians who continued to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem long after the Crusaders had departed. Visitors in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries reported walking a route called the Via Sacra, a Latin phrase meaning "Sacred Road," which took them past many Christian shrines. Meanwhile, both the Crusaders and the Christian pilgrims brought their devotion to Jerusalem's holy sites back to Europe. They developed the idea of reproducing these sites in their home towns for devotional purposes. Though the Stations of the Cross were known in Europe during the late Middle Ages, the exercise did not achieve widespread popularity until the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. During the sixteenth century Franciscan monks all across Europe began to promote prayerful meditation on the Way of the Cross as a means of deepening one's relationship with Christ. As a result of their efforts many towns and cities set about reproducing Jesus' route from trial to crucifixion. Artists created scenes illustrating the events associated with Jesus' sufferings. In some towns the stations took the form of a series of stage settings constructed along a little path. In other places a number of chapels attached to a large church would be dedicated to the stations. These series of tableaux went by a variety of names, including the Way of the Cross, the Way of Affliction, the Mournful Way, the Very Painful Way, the Seven Falls, the Seven Pillars, and the Sorrowful Journey. In each city, however, one might find different scenes from Jesus' last days represented among the Stations of the Cross. What's more, one might find a different number of scenes represented, ranging anywhere from five to twelve (for a related custom, see also Passion Play).

From about the seventeenth century onward Franciscan monks in Jerusalem, custodians of many of the holy sites associated with Jesus' life, actively promoted the Stations of the Cross in that holy city. They led pilgrims along what they supposed to be the actual route of Jesus' journey from the site of his trial to the site of his crucifixion. This route became known as the Via Dolorosa, a Latin phrase meaning the Sorrowful Road, a name by which it is still known today. In 1725 a Franciscan named Eleazar Horn sketched a map of Jerusalem identifying the location of fourteen Stations of the Cross. This map had the effect of stabilizing both the number of stations included in the devotion and the incidents represented. Nowadays pilgrims to Jerusalem observe some of the stations in different locations, but meditate on the same fourteen incidents. Every Friday afternoon Franciscan monks can still be found leading pilgrims along the Way of the Cross through Jerusalem's crowded streets.

Contemporary Customs

Of the fourteen scenes which compose the Stations of the Cross, nine come from the Bible and five from medieval folklore. The scenes are as follows:

1. Pilate sentences Jesus to death 2. Jesus is given his cross 3. Jesus falls for the first time 4. Jesus meets his mother 5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross for Jesus 6. Veronica wipes Jesus'face 7. Jesus falls for the second time 8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem 9. Jesus falls for the third time 10. Roman soldiers strip Jesus of his clothes 11. Roman soldiers nail Jesus to the cross 12. Jesus dies on the cross 13. Jesus is taken down from the cross 14. Jesus is sealed in the tomb

The five folkloric incidents are Jesus' three falls, his meeting with Veronica, and his meeting with his mother. Together the stations portray a painful journey towards an agonizing death borne with humility and patience on behalf of others. As worshipers stop at each station they consider the spiritual lesson contained in each vignette and the example set by Christ. They offer prayers concerning the application of the lesson in their own lives and in the world. Some churches that reproduce the Stations of the Cross for their own congregations today add a fifteenth station representing Jesus' resurrection. Many devout Christians have written prayers and meditations to accompany the stations. Often a guide leads a group of worshipers in these set prayers and meditations as they move from station to station.

Today the Stations of the Cross may be found in many different places and formats. In addition to those that are available year-round, churches may set up the stations for Lent or Holy Week. One can even experience online versions of the stations on the World Wide Web. Throughout the year pilgrims to Jerusalem still walk the Way of the Cross in the same streets that Jesus may well have trod in his last few hours, some carrying a large wooden cross as a means of entering into the experience more fully. In Rome Pope John Paul II arrives at the Coliseum each year on Good Friday, shoulders a large wooden cross, and leads thousands of worshipers in the Stations of the Cross. By so doing he upholds a papal tradition dating back to the mideighteenth century.

Further Reading

Ball, Ann. A Handbook of Catholic Sacramentals. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Peterson, John. A Walk in Jerusalem. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.

Web Sites

Catholic Online offers a simple electronic version of the Stations of the Cross at the following address:

Creighton University's Online Ministries presents the Stations of the Cross as a personal meditation. Includes images, prayers, history, and an explanation of how and why to do the stations: Ministry/stations.html The following site, sponsored by Christus Rex and the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, takes the viewer through the Stations of the Cross with photos of the sites in Jersusalem where, according to Christian tradition, the events took place: main.html

A searching, contemporary version of the stations, in which each station is identified as a site in an ordinary California town (San Mateo). Designed by United Church of Christ minister Jim Burklo: burklo2/stations.html
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Stations of the Cross

depictions of episodes of Christ’s death. [Christianity: Brewer Dictionary, 1035]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.