We cannot possibly truly imagine what Jesus Christ went through during His Passion and Death. Suffering the horrible, excruciating, ignominious scourging and crucifixion, carrying the weight of the sins of all mankind, past, present, and future. He and He alone can understand what happened in the most fundamental ways. We can hope to achieve some dim understanding through prayerful reflection, and a meticulous, meditative exploration of the events of the Passion. For some of us, perhaps the most effective way to do this is through the Stations of the Cross, or the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross.
There are differing sets of the Stations of the Cross. Some begin with the Agony in the Garden prior to the arrest of Jesus. In our reflections, we will be using the traditional set, beginning with Jesus arrested and standing before Pontius Pilate. There are fourteen of these stations – we will reflect on the first seven today.
The First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death
Jesus Christ, a carpenter from Nazareth who had gained a reputation for preaching, teaching, and healing, performing miracles and claiming the power to forgive sins, stands accused. He has been betrayed by one of His followers, His inner circle, His trusted confidants, and has been brought before the Roman authorities in order that He might be executed. The furor with which the crowd demands His execution effectively ties the hands of the Roman, Pontius Pilate, who goes so far as to literally and symbolically wash his hands of the affair, so as not to bear responsibility for this travesty of justice. Pilate did not know the half of what he was doing.
This was not merely a man who had been wrongfully accused, a man who was sent to death while a true criminal, Barabbas, was released. This man, this Jesus, was the Son of God. The Hebrew God, the true God, the God who created everything through his Word, the Word that was with God and was God (cf. John 1). It was this Word, become incarnate and who dwelt among us, that stood before Pontius Pilate. Pilate, folding to the pressure of the crowd, and disregarding his wife’s wishes to the contrary, condemned Him to death. And again, Pilate could not have known what this death would effect – he could not know that, by condemning this man to death, he was facilitating the conquering of death, the defeat of death’s sting. But before that, Jesus Christ was in for unimaginable suffering.
The Second Station: Jesus Takes Up His Cross
In the Via Crucis, once Jesus is condemned, it is said simply that He then takes up His cross. If we are familiar with the Gospel accounts, or if we pray the Rosary regularly, we realize that in this simple elision, we are in danger of forgetting about the profound suffering that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Roman soldiers. This is the beginning of the execution, and the soldiers revel in the moment. They mock Jesus. They strip Him of His clothes. They scourge Him. They fashion a crown of thorns which they place onto His head. They humiliate and torture Him, until, once He takes up the cross, He already can barely walk. And He must carry the cross to the Place of the Skull, the place of His execution.
The Third Station: Jesus Falls for the First Time
Jesus falls. Under the weight of the cross which He carries, and with His body already weakened by the scourging and torture that He was the subject of, He collapses. It is perhaps too easy for us to come to this station, casually think “Oh no, He fell down,” and move along. But we need to look more closely at the heart of this station: Jesus – bruised, bloodied, with cuts and gashes and open wounds all over His body, sweating and gasping for air from the pain that comes with each step – falls to the ground, and the dust, dirt, grime, and filth stick to His body. Enter His wounds. His pain increases, His body is taking even more of a beating, and He has no choice but to stand and continue on the way to the place of His execution. And we know from the title of this station that this is not an isolated incident: Jesus falls for the first time. It will happen again. This via crucis is only beginning.
The Fourth Station: Jesus Meets His Mother
When Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated to God in fulfillment of their obligation under the Law, Simeon, the prophet, said to Mary, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign of contradiction, that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed. And a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34-35). A sword pierces Mary’s heart as she watches her son on the path to His death. The grief of a parent at the suffering of their children is something profound and tragic. How much greater then is the suffering of the Mother of God when she sees her people, fellow creatures of the Almighty, committing deicide, murdering Him who created them, her beloved Son?
We can only imagine what transpired in a meeting between Mary and her Son as He carried His cross. What would He have said to her? Could He even speak? Could she bring herself to say anything to Him, or did she just tenderly cradle His head, kiss Him sweetly, and thank Him through her tears for His sacrifice? What would we say if we had the opportunity to speak with Jesus as He carried His cross?
The Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene Helps Jesus Carry the Cross
Simon of Cyrene is a mysterious figure who is presented to us in the gospels. Mark tells us, “They compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his Cross” (Mark 15:21). This is a curious passage, which brings up many questions. Why was Simon of Cyrene passing by at this time? Why did the soldiers compel him to help Jesus carry the cross? What purpose did that serve, in their minds? Why are we given details about Simon’s children, as a means of identifying him?
We can recognize several important things in this passage, and in the person of Simon. Some think that Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon, were prominent Christians at the time Mark was writing his gospel, and that is why he mentions them by name. Simon is identified primarily by his relationship to these two, and it seems that Mark expects his readers to know who they are. Perhaps Simon’s act, as compelled by the soldiers, resulted in a profound experience of conversion and he became a disciple of Jesus, and his sons followed in his footsteps.
We are all called to figuratively follow in the literal footsteps of Simon, carrying the cross of Jesus Christ. We should see ourselves in him. All of us are called to carry our cross, but as Christians it is never a cross that we bear on our own, never a cross that is completely unique. We bear the cross of Christ, the yoke of Christ. When we take up our cross and follow Him, we are joining in the cross-carrying of Jesus and all of His followers.
The Sixth Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
The figure of Veronica is another curious one in that she is specifically identified by name in the traditional Stations of the Cross, although she is not in the gospel accounts of the Passion of Jesus. Furthermore, her role in the Passion of Jesus may seem like little more than a “cute” miracle. But we must look more deeply at this mysterious event.
In his reflection on the stations in 2003, Pope St. John Paul II suggests that Veronica may be a counterpart to Simon of Cyrene. As she could not have carried the physical cross of Jesus, “she carried it in the only way possible to her at the moment, and in obedience to the dictates of her heart: she wiped His Face. Tradition has it that an imprint of Christ’s features remained on the cloth she used.” The Holy Father relates this act to the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (cf. Matthew 25:37-40). “In fact,” John Paul says, “the Saviour leaves His imprint on every single act of charity, as He did on Veronica’s cloth.”
The Seventh Station: Jesus Falls for the Second Time
Jesus falls again. At this point, His body must be shutting down. After the extreme abuse He has taken, and carrying the cross to the point where He can go no further without the help of a stranger, He falls to the ground once again. Beyond the physical pain such a fall would result in, imagine the humiliation He must have felt. We understand that there had developed a crowd along the way to the place where Jesus would be crucified. They taunted Him, mocked Him, spat on Him. Even with the help of Simon, Jesus cannot go on, and collapses to the ground. We can imagine that the slurs and epithets from the ground were hurled with even greater vigor, and even rancor, at this point. But Jesus knew that He must go on. His work was not complete. He could not simply lay down in the street and die. He would finish His journey to the Place of the Skull, and be lifted up on the tree. A tree of death, which would become a new Tree of Life.