Formally known as the Way of the Cross, but popularly called the Stations, this devotion emerged not from scripture but from the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Since the time of Constantine, pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorosa ("Way of Sorrow") from Pilate's house to Golgotha, meditating on the suffering and death of Jesus. Depending on your guide this journey could include 18, 25, or as many as 37 different stops or "stations" of meditation.
For various reasons—distance, expense, and shifting political landscapes among them—it wasn't always possible for people to get to Israel. Yet the grace available in "taking up the cross" with Jesus was deemed valuable enough to seek a way to make this pilgrimage locally accessible to the faithful of Europe.
That led the Franciscans, in whose stewardship the holy sites of Jerusalem were entrusted, to franchise the Via Dolorosa in first one then several sites in Europe. "The Seven Falls of Jesus" consolidated this early Way of the Cross, three of which are preserved in our current Fourteen Stations. (Four of the meetings along the way—with Jesus' Mother, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, and the Holy Women of Jerusalem—are considered remnants of the other Falls once observed.)
By the 16th century papal support for this devotion increased the demand for Stations in monasteries, convents, and churches. They became so popular that it would be hard to find a church, chapel, or oratory today that doesn't have the Way of the Cross erected within its walls or on its grounds in the open air. Fourteen Stations became established as the standard by the 18th century, and the Stabat Mater hymn (At the Cross Her Station Keeping) has become the traditional song for public devotions.
While images of each event often accompany the Stations, they are not required. The actual Station is represented by the cross itself, to be made of wood. The image may be fashioned of any material. Some artists have added a 15th Station of the Resurrection to create theological balance; others have rewritten the Stations to represent only scripturally based events. This devotion remains a vibrant way to embrace the spirit of pilgrimage and to contemplate how to "take up the cross" where we live.
See the Passion accounts in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18-19
www.usccb.org/nab/stations.htm (alternative Stations prayed by Pope John Paul II)
The New Stations of the Cross: The Way of the Cross According to Scripture by Megan McKenna (Image Books, 2003)
Walk with Jesus: Stations of the Cross by Henri J. M. Nouwen (Orbis Books, 1990)
The Way of the Cross with the Women of the Gospels by Sister Ruth Fox, O.S.B. (Liturgy Training Publications)
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