Centuries ago Christians made pilgrimages to the Holy Land, to visit the sacred sites. Inevitably every pilgrim would trace the final steps of Jesus life, leading up to the crucifixion, by walking a traditional road–the one believed to have been used by Jesus–from Pilate’s courtyard to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where the condemned were crucified.
In Latin this road became known as the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering; and alternatively known as the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross. Over time a tradition developed, where regular spots, or stations, came to exist, where pilgrims would stop, recite prayers and meditate upon each moment of Christ’s Passion.
Walking the Via Crucis became a part of Christian spirituality, a way of enjoining oneself to the sufferings of Christ, a way to abide by the call of Christ,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” – Mark 8:34
The Crusades and following wars began to separate Western Christians from visiting the holy sites, and a system of walking the Via Crucis without physically being in Jerusalem developed during the Middle Ages. The spiritual discipline of the Stations of the Cross were developed to this end.
The Via Crucis, however, is not merely some medieval tradition, but a more deeply rooted spirituality. It springs from a fervent desire to, as the Apostle Paul writes,
“To know Him and the power of His resurrection, participating in His sufferings by being conformed to His death,” – Philippians 3:10
The Way of the Cross is not simply a spiritual exercise, but, in my estimation, the chief form of life in the here and now.
The Way of the Cross is the most resonantly human form of being. Suffering echoes through our humanity, as we sojourn through life, seeing life come and go before our eyes. The majority of the world’s citizens do not live in luxury, but in utter poverty–our American condition is the abnormality of the broader human condition. Where children starve, and mothers see their children collapse in death, where wars tear apart families, where disease infests entire nations.
The Way of Suffering is normative to human life.
God, in condescending down into that human experience, in the Person of Jesus, comes into the full depth of penultimate human existence. By bearing the Cross, he bears the fullness of human wretchedness, and the call of Jesus to, “pick up your cross” is no trifle. Rather it is His demand, that if anyone would seek to follow Him, they must do as He does, and bear cross and suffering, and enjoin upon themselves the suffering of humanity.
While Christ alone overcomes death, He calls all to enter into His death–for His death is the ultimate death, the death of Death. Coming to participate in His death is both the annihilation of our former life, and the beginning of the new.
Since in Christ we are a “new creation” (writes Paul), it can only come in being ripped away from what we once were, and being born anew into something totally other.
And in the midst of all that, is the Cross.
The Way of the Cross is the path we must all walk if we truly seek a genuine death, a death that ends all death–the death of Death itself. The scandalous mystery of the Cross, however, is that when death is, itself, crucified, all that is left is life.
The Way of the Cross, is the path toward life.
But Eternal Life is found in the Way of Suffering, Christ Himself the One True Victim, who joins Himself to all the victims of suffering, calling them into a community of resurrection and transfiguration. A Community of Grace.
So we hope for the resurrection from the dead, and life in the World to Come. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, the old has passed, behold, He makes all things new.