Question: Where did the devotion known as the Stations of the Cross originate?
Answer: One of the earliest private devotions of the Christians of Jerusalem was to retrace the route taken by our Lord from the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate to His crucifixion on Golgotha, meditating on the events that He experienced on the way to die for our sins. St. Jerome was the first to write about this devotion, already flourishing in his time because of the relatively recent legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire. The Crusades of the middle ages exposed many more western Christians to this manner of meditating on the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ. Returning home, many of these soldier-pilgrims desired to preserve the experience of the way of the Cross for themselves and to share it with those who had never visited the Holy Land. Churches and monasteries began to see the erection of miniature recreations of the "via dolorosa -- the way of sorrows." Newly constructed edifices might be designed with chapels or side altars dedicated to the principal events of the Way of the Cross; where this was impractical, pictures or statuary were placed along the periphery of a church, around the cloister garden, or in some other convenient place. The Franciscan Friars, official custodians of the holy places in Jerusalem, zealously promoted such devotion, adding innumerable artistic treasures to the wealth of western civilization.
In the middle ages the number of stations and their subjects varied widely. In modern times, the Stations of the Cross have become more or less standardized with fourteen specific events. It should be noted that the Church requires only fourteen plain wooden crosses for the Stations, the meditations on Christ's Passion being considered so much more important than any artistic considerations.
Various devotional manuals detail appropriate sentiments for the Stations. Rather than quote numerous references to sacred scripture, we urge our readers to consult Matthew 26 & 27, Mark 14 & 15, Luke 22 & 23, and John 18 & 19. We have space here for only a few comments:
1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death. After the formality of a trial in which Pilate "found no guilt in this man," Jesus was condemned for fear of the crowd. At this station we ask God to increase in us the virtue of justice.
2nd Station: Jesus is made to carry His cross. St. John is specific, "Bearing the cross for Himself, He went forth to the place called the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha." We ask for the virtue of fortitude.
3rd Station: Jesus falls for the first time. The scriptures do not record the number of Jesus' falls, but certainly they occurred as our Lord, faint from loss of blood, carried the heavy beam on his back, lacerated by the whip. We pray to be delivered from falling into sin.
4th Station: Jesus meets His sorrowful Mother. Mary and the other holy women accompanied Him to Calvary in sorrow. Imagine the emotion Jesus and Mary shared in their first glimpse of each other. We pray for devotion to Mary, and for love and loyalty in our own families.
5th Station: Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus' cross. Matthew and Luke mention him. Mark refers to him as the father of Alexander and Rufus, suggesting that they were Christians known to those in Rome. We pray for the grace cheerfully to help our neighbors in need.
6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. The name "Veronica" probably comes from the Latin and Greek words for "True Picture," referring to a cloth bearing the likeness of our Lord and believed to have been left there as a reward for this woman's kindness. We pray that we will have compassion on those who suffer.
7th Station: Jesus falls the second time. We pray for perseverance in grace and help in resisting temptation.
8th Station: The women of Jerusalem weep over Jesus. "Weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children," He tells them, "Behold, days are coming in which men will say, 'Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore.'" We pray that we may remain steadfast in times of persecution and tribulation.
9th Station: Jesus falls the third time. We pray that God will give us the grace to follow His Commandments without regard to the opinions of the world and worldly people.
10th Station: Jesus is stripped of His garments. Because of the scourging His clothes adhere like bloody bandages, ripping His wounds again as they are roughly pulled away. We pray for modesty, and for chastity according to our state in life.
11th Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross. Supported only by crude nails through His wrists and feet, Jesus is hoisted into the air to die the agonizing death of asphyxiation as His arms tire and He is no longer able to painfully raise Himself to breathe. We ask God for the grace to bear our sufferings cheerfully, in union with His Son.
12th Station: Jesus dies on the Cross. After three hours of agony He abandons Himself to death. With His life Jesus suffered what should have been the penalty for our sins. We pray for an increase in respect for human life.
13th Station: Jesus is taken down for the Cross. Ponder the sorrow of Mary holding the lifeless body she once held at the breast. We pray to be Christ-like, serving in His stead during our earthly lives.
14th Station: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus "wrapped the body in clean linen cloth and laid it in [Joseph's] new tomb, hewn out in the rock." We ask God that we may always remember to treat the dead with respect and always to keep them in our prayers.