Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Encountering Jesus in the Stations of the Cross: the Physicality of Faith

In just about every Catholic Church one can find depictions (whether paintings, sculptures, prints, mosaics, etc.) of the Stations of the Cross – fourteen images of events that encompass the trial, suffering, and execution of Jesus. The traditional fourteen stations begin with Jesus condemned to death before Pontius Pilate and end with Him being laid in the tomb. Included are various moments (some directly Biblical, others rooted in popular tradition) that tell the story of Jesus’ Passion and which allow the viewer to meditate on each event as they pass from station to station on what is also called “The Way of the Cross.”

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.


  1. Excellent post, Tom! Thanks for sharing your insights. You hit the nail right on the head! Catholicism is all about the Sacramental Principle... we are both physical and spiritual. We must never forget that we are to nourish both of our natures. Have a Blessed Easter. God bless.

  2. I dont know where to get the answers on the questions I asked on the other blog so I am reminding you here. Maybe you want to start a new topic?

  3. Thank you Michelle. I too love the fact that Catholicism addresses the WHOLE person, every part of our being. God knew what He was doing when He established His Church.
    Thank you for reading.
    And Happy Easter to you and your family!!

  4. Michael,
    I don’t usually engage in protracted debates with non-Catholics. I used to do so (and still do when I find it serves a useful purpose or it is a stimulating conversation), but I don’t have any particular “bone to pick” with you, and I am unsure of what you are seeking.
    You asked several questions of me at the Adventist blog we both visited, so if you would like to suggest one of those areas as a topic for discussion then you may select one and we can begin there. I will then create a new post here on my blog that explains that particular doctrine or belief. Then you can post a comment with some follow-up questions and/or challenges and we can go on until we have exhausted the topic.
    I don’t have a huge listing of posts yet at this blog since I am new at this, so there is nowhere on my blog that would directly answer the questions you have posed. We can start from scratch and see where it goes, and maybe your questions will benefit others as well.
    So if that all sounds agreeable, then just add another comment here under this post, and suggest a topic within that comment. If your suggestion is too broad or needs some adjustment I may suggest some changes until we both agree that it is a suitable topic and then we can proceed.
    Otherwise…I have been posting a series on the Fathers of Church…that is – the Christians of the first few centuries who left behind writings that explain the beliefs of the early Church. Some of those posts may highlight a few of the issues you brought up at the other blog. You may just want to follow along with those posts and interject some comments along the way.
    If you are trying to win me over as a convert or change my mind from Catholicism…well then, you may want to move on to another blog. That’s been tried on me before and it has only deepened my commitment as a Catholic.
    Either way…God bless.

  5. Thanks Thomas,
    I dont know hwere to begin. Its like comming into the middle of a different conversation isnt it? Its your blog and I was only trying to do as you asked me to in the other blog.
    I guess the suscinct topic inline with where we left off the other conversation would be something like;
    The authority to interpit scripture and its inherant need to be right or it is of no use because who cares if someone has authority and they are wrong.
    I leave it up to you as how you would care to help me understand.
    And I have no interest in converting you to anything. I believe people will find their way if they are honest and searching. God honors that.

  6. Michael,
    Before I create a new post or engage in any kind of debate I just want to clarify a few things. First of all, the reason I was debating on the Adventist blog is not because I have a particular quarrel with that denomination or that I want to pick fights with non-Catholics. I was there by invitation from the blogger himself. He asked me to visit, and to check out his site and leave comments. I obliged, but I warned him then that I am not interested in drawn out fights over Scripture verses that go round in circles and end up nowhere. So I’ll tell you the same thing…
    The Bible is a wonderful gift from God – it is God’s Word. But there are many Christians who pick up the Bible and come to radically different conclusions. Two Christians from two different churches can read the same Bible verse and arrive at interpretations that are completely opposed. They each may claim that they are simply taking the words at face value, yet they come up with different meanings. So if you and I just swap Bible verses back and forth it will lead us nowhere fast.
    I have seen it again and again when I debate. The problem is not the Bible (after all we are both looking at the same text) – no, the problem is interpretation. Whose interpretation is correct? Who has arrived at the correct meaning of the words? When we are dealing with an ancient text, from another culture that has been translated and re-translated, from sources that are not the originals and that sometimes have variant texts, the problem of interpretation becomes a major stumbling block.
    Which brings me to your question (if I might be allowed to re-work the wording): Who has the authority to interpret? Since it is essential that we “get it right” when it comes to Biblical interpretation, where do we turn for correct interpretation? Is it up to each individual; do we all come up with doctrine on our own? Or is it a “majority vote,” a “group consensus,” do we meet in assemblies and vote on interpretations? Or did God establish a certain teaching office within His Church? Did the Apostles pass on their role as leaders of the community and preserve the office of teacher?
    If a teaching office was truly established by God, then wouldn’t God also ensure through His Spirit (who will lead us to all Truth) that that office would be protected from error so that we could be sure we would always have the Truth available to us, to combat heresy and to correct abuses? If God gave us His Word in Scripture, then surely in His infinite wisdom, He would also know that Christians would use the Bible to fight over doctrine. Since God knew there would be division, He also made a plan for how we can arrive at true doctrine and sort through the clutter of all these various sects and denominations.
    Now, I can create a post that explains the Catholic position on the authority of the Church’s Majesterium (its teaching office), and you can comment on that if you would like. (Frankly, I was going to write something along those lines eventually anyway, so this will give me a good excuse.) It will be entitled: “The Majesterium of The Church: the Gift of the Spirit of Truth”
    Does that sound agreeable?

  7. Wonderful. Thanks

  8. It may take a week or so to write a post on this topic. I have another entry for the Patristics series that I'm working on, and of course the Easter holiday is upon us. So look for it sometime next week...maybe late in the week. Until then, have a Happy Easter.

  9. Michael,
    I do apologize for how long it has taken me to create a post for discussion as I had promised. I had several family events to which I had to attend, and also the task became larger than I had anticipated.
    I had originally suggested the title – “The Magisterium of The Church: the Gift of the Spirit of Truth.” However as I gathered my information and reflected on your original question I realized that the Catholic understanding of the “Word of God” must also be addressed. We cannot discuss the Church’s authority to interpret God’s Word unless we first define what is meant by “God’s Word” from a Catholic perspective. So I titled the piece “Spirit of Truth: the Word of God as taught by the Magisterium of the Church.” It is a slight expansion of the topic, but I thought a needed one.
    If you have any questions or comments I have recently posted the piece and am now working on another installment on the Patristics…