This Lent, Enter the Divine Fire of Love
The Stations of the Cross Help Transform Our Hearts
The Way of the Cross is the way of love.
It was love that motivated Jesus some 2,000 years ago to embrace his cross, carry it to Golgotha, and offer himself completely for our salvation.
He was not forced to do this. He is God. In an instant, Jesus could have liberated himself from his captors in Gethsemane or come down from the cross. He clearly stated, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
Jesus freely chose to endure this suffering. Why? As Archbishop Piero Marini put it, in “The Way of the Cross,” “The Spirit … as a divine fire burning in his breast, drives him to walk to Calvary.”
The Stations of the Cross devotion draws us into this divine fire of Christ’s love; indeed, it invites us to participate in this deeper meaning of Christ’s passion. While the word “passion” (from the Latin passio) means “suffering,” Pope Benedict XVI calls us to see another layer of meaning. He points out how the modern sense of the word “passion” can describe passionate love, which also sheds light on the mystery of what Jesus did for us on Good Friday. As he explained, in Deus Caritas Est, “God is … a lover with all the passion of a true love.”
The Passion of a True Love
God is so passionately in love with us that, even though we have sinned and turned away from his love countless times, he still wants to do whatever he can to unite himself to us. He wants to remove whatever sins, hurts or barriers keep us from full union with him. He broke into our world, became one of us, sought us out, and even entered into our suffering and death — all so that he could rescue us and be one with us. It was love that drove him to do this.
Through the Stations of the Cross, we encounter that divine love in a powerful way. Each station reveals certain aspects of his love.
We see his humility, his mercy, his compassion — even when he is suffering the most. We see his courage and his willingness to stand up for what is true; his perseverance in completing a most arduous mission; and his patience in enduring misunderstandings, mockery, false accusations and abandonment along the way: He was rejected by the people he came to save, betrayed by one of his 12 apostles, and let down by his closest friends, the very disciples whom he loved the most.
Still, the Stations of the Cross also reveal Jesus’ complete confidence in the Father — “Into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46) — and his total surrender to the Father’s will — “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). We see his generosity, his desire to sacrifice, his willingness to suffer for the sake of others. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
A Window Into the Heart of Jesus
Each station is like a window into the heart of Jesus. At every step of the way, we can look inside and see another beautiful aspect of his love.
But the Stations of the Cross are not just windows. They are not meant to be something we passively look at from the outside. They are more like doorways, through which we are called to enter.
Jesus does not want us standing on the outside of each station, merely admiring what he did for us. He does not want our applause. He wants our hearts. He wants us to step inside each station and enter the mystery of his love so that he can reproduce that love in us. While this devotion certainly inspires us to grieve our sins and praise and thank Jesus for all he did for us, it also summons us to live the Stations of the Cross in our own daily lives. After all, this is the essence of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
As we encounter Christ at each station, then, Jesus draws us to love more like him in our marriages, families, friendships, parishes, workplaces and communities.
In the Stations, Jesus invites us to be patient and gentle with our children. He calls us to be more compassionate with our spouse, even when they hurt us, realizing “they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
He wants us to forgive those who hurt us. He gives us many opportunities to share in his sufferings when misunderstood or underappreciated.
He wants us to be courageous like him, willing to stand up for what is true, even if we are persecuted for it in our secular culture. He wants us to surrender our own plans and dreams, committing our will entirely to the Father’s, like he did. And he wants us to put our whole lives into the Father’s hands.
In English, the word “stations” refers to places people stop as they wait for the next step in their journey. We might think of a train or bus station — a place where we wait for a vehicle to come and take us to our destination. The Stations of the Cross devotion is called “Stations” because it invites us to wait on the Lord in our own journey of faith. We are pilgrims on the way to heaven, and this devotion helps us walk closely with Jesus so that we may be ever more conformed to the Way of Love, which is the Way of the Cross.
The devotion engages the whole person — body, mind and soul.
It is a physical exercise: We move, stop, make the Sign of the Cross, kneel, stand again, listen, and reply. All the moving, stopping, falling to our knees, and rising up again as we trace the Sign of the Cross over our bodies recalls Jesus on his way to Calvary. He fell, got up again, listened to others, and replied to them. Jesus had many “stations” on his way to Golgotha. He was stopped by his accusers, stopped by his own weakness, and stopped by his own love for the people he met along the way. So it is fitting that we move from station to station, rising and falling and rising again as we cross ourselves and remember Jesus’ own Way of the Cross. We are incarnate beings, and what we do in our bodies expresses our interior life and helps us respond more reverently and ardently to Christ’s love.
The Stations of the Cross devotion is also a mental exercise: Our mind reflects on what Jesus reveals in each station. We see an image related to each station in a book or on the church walls. We hear the leader read a reflection on the scene. All of this helps fill our minds with the truth of what Jesus did for us on this day, and we penetrate more deeply the mystery of his love that each mystery unveils.
Finally, this devotion is a profound spiritual exercise. Hopefully, we are not just going through the motions, rattling off words and moving robotically from station to station around the church. We know we have prayed the Stations well when the devotion facilitates a deeper personal encounter with Christ — when we are drawn to love and sacrifice more, when we are stirred to tell Jesus we are sorry and repent of a certain sin, and when we more deeply realize his amazing love for us.
Basically, the goal of the Stations is to help transform our hearts. They are not just meant to be prayed; they are meant to be re-lived in each of our lives. Jesus wants to walk his steps to Calvary, his steps of love, over and over again in each of our hearts.
This article is based on his newest book, Pocket Guide to Stations of the Cross (Ascension Press).