The Stations are usually arranged in an orderly fashion within the church, spread out in such a way to encourage us to walk from one to the next as though following a route marked out by each successive event, numbered “one” through “fourteen,” until we find ourselves at the tomb. It becomes a journey on which we pause to pray and reflect at designated intervals.
This traditional devotion surrounding Jesus’ suffering and death stems from the ancient practice of making a “pilgrimage” – a journey to the holy places of Jerusalem or other significant religious sites. Specifically, the Way of the Cross allows those of us who cannot afford, or due to some other limitation cannot make, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to see and experience what pilgrims have seen and experienced for centuries. We re-trace the steps of Jesus as He is led to his death. In the Stations of the Cross we behold a physical reminder of Jesus’ suffering on our behalf. The Stations of the Cross are often prayed during Lent, as we journey to the joy of Easter.
Our five-year-old son has been fascinated with the Stations of the Cross for a couple of years or so. Many Sundays, after Mass, he insists that we walk from station to station as I tell him what is happening in each picture. Our daughter (who is soon to be three) is also now taking an interest in the Way of the Cross. They both have benefited from the very physical depictions of Jesus’ life and death, as well as the lives of the saints that appear, not only in the Stations, but also in the statutes and stained glass, the paintings and imagery found throughout our parish church. These are invaluable teaching tools for the very young. But even adults can benefit from these physical reminders of the faith.
Catholic faith thrives on the physical. The sights and sounds (or the “bells and smells,” as they say) encourage total participation from all of our five senses as we pray and worship God in the Catholic Tradition. Faith is not just a “mental” disposition – a belief that stays trapped in the abstract, in the mind – faith involves the whole person. We worship as whole persons, body and soul, when we include our bodies in the spiritual act of prayer. Catholics have certainly taken this principle very seriously down through the centuries. We stand, sit, or kneel during the Mass for very specific reasons; we cross ourselves; we light candles, burn incense, and pray on rosary beads; we genuflect and bow and process in and out of church; we use blessed palms, blessed ashes and holy water; we consecrate with sacred oils We find every way imaginable to include our bodies in our devotions.
One component of the Protestant Reformation involved a shedding of the outer “trappings” of Catholicism, specifically the physical reminders of what the Reformers saw as a corruption of the true faith. They destroyed statues, burned paintings, and shattered stained glass. The holy water, the incense, the liturgical vestments were thrown out. Gone were the images and relics of the past, and all that was left was “Faith Alone” – as the Protestant motto declared. But this was a Faith stripped bare and left naked and in the dark. Without the kneeling, the standing, the genuflections, faith was left paralyzed. Without the statues, the windows, the paintings and the lamp-light, faith was left blind. “Faith Alone” is a lonely and disheartening prospect. Some of the Reformers realized this and struggled somewhere between a pseudo-Catholicism and the more puritanical sects of the Reformed Movement. Protestantism has, ever since, struggled to grapple with how to include physicality within spirituality.
Today some of the Mainline Protestant churches retain a few “catholic” carry-overs. Some use palms on Palm Sunday or ashes at the start of Lent. Some use liturgical vestments and even some stained glass or paintings. But many of these mainline denominations are dying out. The up-and-coming Christian sect seems to be the Evangelical, non-denominational, mega-church style of Christianity. And with its rise there seems to be a new stripping away of the old “catholic” understanding of Tradition and the physicality of worship. The new Christian churches are sleek and clean. The minister wears a suit and tie, and cannot be physically distinguished from any of his parishioners. If there is a cross, it is bear, without Christ’s body. There are no depictions of saints or Biblical scenes in the windows or on the walls. Worshipers are given plush stadium seating so that each can sit comfortably, unmoved throughout the “show” without standing or moving or gesturing in the slightest. This new manifestation of the Protestant ideal has not only watered down the doctrine, but it has further watered down the spirituality. Our bodies are again separated from the worship of God.
I listen to a radio station frequently that advertises heavily for a local Evangelical mega-church. Many of the other sponsors on this station also lean heavily toward this brand of Evangelicalism. I recently heard a commercial on this station that I found encouraging and somewhat surprising. With the approach of Easter, one Christian retailer was promoting a product that is meant to bring out the true meaning of the holiday and introduce children to the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. Their product includes twelve Easter eggs which contain objects associated with different moments in Jesus’ Passion – from the Agony in the Garden to the Resurrection. As your child opens each egg, he or she is introduced to the events of Jesus’ suffering and death and through these physical reminders will come to a better understanding of the true meaning of Easter and the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. Sound familiar? Rather like the Stations of the Cross, don’t you think?
There is no escaping the physicality of our being. We are physical creatures and we express ourselves in physical ways. Our spirituality can be nurtured through outward signs and symbols. The Son of God, though He was pure spirit became flesh and blood, so that salvation could be brought to our bodies as well as our souls. We should embrace our physical nature and include it in our worship. Our children, who are so often exposed to the signs and symbols of the pop culture, need corresponding symbols in the world of faith to combat the temptations and struggles they will inevitably face. It does no good to strip our Christian faith of the physical symbols in the name of some supposed “reform” if that reformed church fails to teach our children who Jesus is and what He did for our salvation. As we approach Easter we should realize that when Jesus died He did not shed his body and assume a new non-physical form. Rather He rose again in the flesh, and we too must feed our flesh spiritually for our own growth in the faith.