Strangers to Christianity often wonder at the symbolism we use. The cross is a reminder of Christ’s violent and ignominious death, a failure in human terms. Similarly, the way of the cross must seem strange to them. We follow the last steps of Jesus as He carries His cross to the place of execution. Why would we wish to remember that?
Of course, as Christians, we understand the significance of this event and we are charged to take up our cross and follow. The Stations of the Cross which we are familiar with originated in the Via Dolorosa followed by pilgrims to Jerusalem. They retraced the path Jesus followed to His crucifixion.
Today we are following a tradition which is reputed to have started with Saint Francis of Assisi who made this a devotion in churches. We don’t need to go to Jerusalem to retrace Our Lord’s last steps we can do it in our own parish. It is so much an accepted part of Catholic life that I have never given much thought to its origins or deeper meanings.
This time last year I was making my preparations for my attempt at the Camino, a testing pilgrimage. When I set off eventually I passed through Lourdes and had a passing thought about starting from there. The train moved off and the thought went. At the end of last year I returned to Lourdes for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a less strenuous pilgrimage.
On that feast day we had Mass in the grotto followed by The Stations in the underground basilica. We were led by Father John Ahern and his commentary had a lasting effect on me. The basilica was dark and cold on that December morning. Perhaps the strange surroundings led me to think again about the Stations as a pilgrimage.
That’s where I’m going this year. I’m going to take each station in turn and see what I find. I hope you can come along.
The First Station – Jesus is condemned to death
I start by looking at what we are told in the Gospels. All four evangelists agree that Jesus was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. They go to some length to show that Pilate was reluctant to do this. He said he could find no case against Jesus that merited death. The crowd applied pressure. They howled him down. They applied political threats. They claimed that Jesus’ claim to be a king was a threat to Caesar, Pilate’s boss.
Pilate reluctantly gave in and condemned Jesus to death. In Matthew’s gospel we learn that he washes his hands of Jesus’ blood. Matthew goes further to tell us that the people say “Let his blood be on us and our children.”
So who is guilty of Jesus’ death? The debate resurfaces from time to time. In recent years the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of The Christ” caused furore and accusations of anti-Semitism. Were the Jews to blame or was it the Romans? It is an interesting debate, but I think it misses the point. I was always taught that Jesus died for our sins. He died to redeem us. If there is any blame going then some of it must, surely come my way.
The focus of this station is not on who is to blame. We are asked to look at this situation and imagine what we would have done if we had been there. If I was one of the crowd would I have cried out “Crucify him!” just like the others? It might have proved to be a dangerous thing to do.
If I had been in Pontius Pilate’s place how would I have reacted? Pilate was a powerful man. He had a Roman army at his disposal. He could have sorted out the crowd easily. Pilate was governor to calm down Jerusalem. He didn’t want to stir up crowds. He knew Jesus was innocent and a victim of jealousy. Would I have acted differently? Would I stand up for truth in the face of displeasing my ruler and probably losing my job?
Well, that was then and this is today. It would be easy to say I would have been a man of principle and would have stood for justice. What would I do in a similar situation today? There are innocent people suffering and dying in unjust situations. In Africa there are poor farmers who will remain poor no matter how hard they work because the price of the tea or coffee they grow is decided by the dealers in the rich countries. I buy that tea and coffee. When am I standing up against injustice?
Asylum seekers in our country face inhuman treatment sometimes. I read today of an eighty four year old man in a detention centre for asylum seekers who died in handcuffs. Doctors had declared him to be unfit for detention or deportation but he died, having been in handcuffs for almost five hours. When did I stand up and speak out against inhuman treatment of people in my country?
Some might cite the abortion scandal in our country as another example of killing the innocent while we ignore it. In the light of these things I’m not sure that I could claim to act any differently than Pilate or the crowd who condemned Jesus. Perhaps that’s the point of the first station. It invites us to look, not at Pilate and the crowd, but at ourselves.
The Way of the Cross is a pilgrimage of sorts and it should enable me to see things in a different light. It should enable me to see myself more clearly, let me see who I really am. I think I must take stock and decide whether I want to be one of the crowd or stand up for justice.
Fortunately there are ways of taking action now that may not have been available in the past. If I want to take action against injustice I can join one of the many groups or organisations that combat injustice. I can become a campaigner with Justice and Peace or help organisations that work to help the poor like Mission Matters or Aid to the Church in need. I could volunteer to work for the poor with the Society of Saint Vincent De Paul.
There are lots of ways I could stand up for justice. One of the most effective ways is, of course, through prayer. Prayer must not be seen as an easy way out. Real prayer is not a quick Hail Mary for the poor. Real prayer for justice must be regular and unceasing. There are lots of prayer options for me. Perhaps I could look back to where I started, in Lourdes. The wee shops opposite the grotto are loaded down with rosaries, and for good reason. Regularly praying the rosary (not the mad dash through the decades) could provide me with an effective and powerful means to stand out from the crowd.
Just as importantly, I must become more observant. I should be able to spot injustice, be it at work, at home or in the public arena. I must become prepared to do something about it.