The Stations of the Cross and Other Devotions

by Victor Hoagland, C.P.
Via Dolorosa
Hand-colored photograph of Via Dolorosa, taken in 1919 by photographers
of the American Colony Photo Department, which was located in Jerusalem

One Christian tradition well known to generations of Jerusalem pilgrims is the devotion to the Stations of the Cross. The devotion likely began, according to some historians, with the practice of early Byzantine pilgrims who on Holy Thursday went in procession from Gethsemani on the eastern side of Jerusalem westward to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. By the 18th century, the route became known as the Via Dolorosa.

From the 14th century, pilgrims under the guidance of the Franciscans commemorated the journey of Jesus to Calvary along this route, with specific locations gradually marked for incidents of the journey. From Jerusalem the devotion of the Stations of the Cross spread to churches and shrines in western Christianity where it influenced popular Christian reflection on the Passion of Jesus.

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem today begins at the remains of the fortress Antonia and proceeds westward through the streets of Jerusalem to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. Archeologists, however, generally place Jesus' judgment by Pilate at Herod's palace on the other side of the city rather than at the Antonia. From Herod's palace Jesus was led to Calvary nearby.

Whatever the archeological judgments may be, the devotion of the Stations of the Cross remains a powerful form for meditating on the passion of Jesus Christ. Based substantially on St. Luke's account of Jesus final journey, it provides a simple symbolic framework for following in the steps of Jesus.

Devotional writings

Illumination of St. Bridget, from a Birgiittine breviary, 1476.

St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), one of the most influential devotional writers on the the Passion of Jesus in the western church, is often shown writing her "Revelations." These writings describe her visions of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Etchings or drawings of St Bridget often show her surrounded by symbols of pilgrimages she made to Rome and the Holy Land.

Along with other devotional writings such as the 13th century Meditations on the Life of Christ, Bridget's writings had enormous influence on the Passion story in medieval art, devotion and popular religion and even today affect the way western Christians imagine the Passion of Jesus. Her writings, often adding details and visual dimensions of the Passion story not found in the gospels, invited Christians to be eye-witnesses of gospel events like the Passion of Jesus. She writes about the sacred events "as they occurred or as they might have occurred according to the devout belief of the imagination and the varying interpretation of the mind." (Meditations) Her purpose was not primarily to give an accurate historical account but rather to engage her readers spiritually in the mystery of their Lord. Like her, other spiritual and devotional writers have written with warmth, imagination and insight about this mystery.

The church views Bridget's writings and the writings of other devotional writers with a cautious respect, neither accepting them as a totally true in every detail, nor denying their power to move hearts and minds. The words of Pope Benedict X1V probably best sum up the Church's position on writings like Bridget's: "Even though many of these revelations have been approved, we cannot and ought not give them the assent of Catholic faith, but only that of human faith, when the rules of prudence present them as probable and worthy of pious credence."

 

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