Throughout the centuries, Christians have longed to go to Jerusalem and re-trace the journey Jesus took in his passion—to walk in his footsteps, literally, on his way to Calvary.
While we can encounter Jesus and express devotion to his passion through prayer, reading the Scriptures, and most especially, through the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Church “also loves the historical memory of the places where Christ suffered, the streets and the stones bathed in his sweat and in his blood.”
According to one tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary would walk the streets of Jerusalem, from Pilate’s Praetorium to Golgotha, visiting the places of her Son’s passion while weeping.
Whatever devotions to Jesus’ passion might have emerged in early Christianity, one thing that is clear is that archeological findings show that Christians were worshipping near the tomb of Christ as early as the second century.
After the emperor Constantine legalized Christian worship throughout the Roman Empire in AD 313, a beautiful church was built over the place where Jesus died—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It was then that pilgrims throughout the Empire began coming in large numbers. St. Jerome (346–420), who lived in nearby Bethlehem toward the end of his life, tells how crowds of pilgrims from many countries came to visit the sacred sites of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Most notable is the famous fourth-century Christian pilgrim Egeria, who wrote a detailed account of her journey in which she tells of the fervor of the pilgrims in the holy city. At dawn, Egeria, the bishop, and two hundred pilgrims processed with candles from Jerusalem to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. There, the people listened to the Gospel account of Christ’s arrest and then mourned with a weeping that could be heard all the way in the city.
Egeria also writes of three holy buildings erected on the hill of Calvary: a round church over Christ’s tomb, a building over Calvary itself, and the main church. Pilgrims would process from one sacred spot to the next, chanting hymns as they worshipped God at the very sites where the death and resurrection of Jesus took place.
Other pilgrims of the fifth and sixth centuries told of a via sacra, a sacred route that led pilgrims to the various shrines in the holy city. Over time, a winding route from the place believed 25 to be Pilate’s Praetorium to Golgotha emerged, and the seeds were planted for what would blossom into the Stations of the Cross we know today. In the medieval period, interest in pilgrimage to Jerusalem picked up, with the Crusaders seeking to regain possession of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Starting in the thirteenth century, the Franciscan friars had a consistent presence at the holy sites, so they were able to welcome and assist pilgrims from Europe. It was in this period that the via sacra began to be settled and marked by various stations. In his account of his pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 1294, the Dominican friar Rinaldo de Monte Crucis reports how he journeyed through Jerusalem to the Holy Sepulchre following the path of Christ. He mentions different stations he visited along the way, such as Herod’s palace and the places where Jesus was condemned to death, where he met the women of Jerusalem, and where Simon of Cyrene carried his cross.
The word “stations” is used by the fifteenth-century English pilgrim William Wey to describe what was believed to be the fourteen places where Jesus stopped on his sorrowful way on Good Friday. Not every Christian, of course, could afford the difficult and expensive trip to Jerusalem. Over time, Muslim control of the Holy Land made it even more difficult for pilgrims from Europe to travel there. So Christians in Europe began depicting the stages of Christ’s journey to 26 Calvary in their own churches and other public places.
Through various devotions that arose associated with the Stations, people could walk in Jesus’ footsteps spiritually right in their hometowns without having to make the trek to Jerusalem. By the seventeenth century, various popes began encouraging stations of the cross to be built in churches throughout the world. It was in this period that Pope Clement XII, in 1731, fixed the number of stations at the traditional fourteen we know today.
St. John Paul II: Biblical Stations of the Cross
In 1991, St. John Paul II introduced the scriptural Way of the Cross. As the Holy Father makes clear, this new version of the Stations was not meant to replace or change the traditional devotion. The original fourteen stations should be maintained. The new scriptural stations simply highlight a few important moments in Christ’s journey to the Cross that are not found in the traditional list.
So these new stations are not as much about introducing something new as they are about rediscovering some past elements. They give us an additional way to walk in Christ’s footsteps.
The scriptural stations maintain most of the fourteen traditional stations but omit those that come to us from tradition but do not have an explicit biblical reference: the three falls of Christ (stations III, V, VII), Jesus meets his mother (station IV), and Veronica wipes the face of Jesus (station VI).
Leaving these out makes room for other scenes from the biblical accounts of Christ’s passion that were not included in the fourteen traditional stations: Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (scriptural station I); Jesus, Betrayed by Judas, Is Arrested (scriptural station II); Jesus Is Condemned by the Sanhedrin (scriptural station III); Jesus Is Denied by Peter (scriptural station IV); Jesus Promises His Kingdom to the Good Thief (scriptural station XI); and Jesus Speaks to His Mother and the Beloved Disciple (scriptural station XII).
This article is based on Edward Sri’s book Pocket Guide to Stations of the Cross (Ascension Press)