Stations of the Cross

A wonderful source of information about liturgy in the early Church is a book called “Egeria’s Travels”. Egeria was a nun, probably from Spain, who travelled to the Holy Land at the end of the 4th century. Fortunately for us, she wrote letters home to her community describing in great detail everything she saw and experienced. This travel diary makes fascinating reading, especially her account of “The Great Week” in Jerusalem.
Pilgrims followed the path that Jesus trod in his last week of life. On Palm Sunday they walked down from the summit of the Mount of Olives, singing psalms and antiphons. On Thursday people processed to Gethsemane where the Lord prayed. On Friday they gathered at Golgotha, the site of the crucifixion, to venerate the Wood of the Cross.
Christians who heard these stories but were unable to travel to Palestine reproduced an analogous devotion at home. The first recorded “Stations of the Cross” outside the Holy Land were at the Church of San Stefano in Bologna in the 5th century. The practice was made especially popular by the Franciscans in the later Middle Ages, but the number and subject of the stations was not settled until the 18th century. The fourteen stations that were established were a blend of biblical and legendary material.
In 1975 the Congregation for Sacred Rites suggested a list of Stations of the Cross more in keeping with the gospel accounts. The Congregation also encouraged the use of this devotional practice over all the seasons of the liturgical year.
The new selection of fourteen stations is scripturally based and covers a fuller span of the events of our salvation. It begins with the Last Supper and concludes with Jesus’ resurrection. Although the stations focus on the suffering of Jesus, they must never ignore our belief that the Cross is a symbol of victory, not defeat.
Several communities celebrate the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday with people from other Christian traditions. It is an ideal form of ecumenical worship. For some it is an outdoor event with participants walking from station to station along the Way of the Cross. For others it is a spiritual journey with Jesus which allows them to express the subjective dimension of their faith.
As we remember the sufferings of Jesus, we are led into the celebration of Christ’s victory over death and into the renewal of our commitment to the life of faith at the Easter sacraments.

Elizabeth Harrington