I like control. I like to be the smartest and best informed man in the room. I like to be the one in charge. I like to have the power to work my will. In other words, I like Adam and Eve, like to make believe that I am God.
Lent and it's fasting, the stations of the cross and almsgiving and prayer are nothing less then an antidote to my obsession with control. It is a time, as a very wise prelate once said, to imagine what it would be like if I were not God!
Very often in life the things we let go of are not freely relinquished. But lent is a time when out of love and the desire to be made perfect in Christ we imitate his act of self emptying, opening our arms on the cross of Lenten penance, admitting, once again, that there is a time for holding on and a time for letting go.
While I have reflected on many of the aspects of a Blessed Lent in the Pastoral Letter I wrote to you last week, this evening I’d like to briefly reflect on the Stations of the Cross and the ways in which they can help us to live a good and holy Lent.
The Stations of the Cross originate in the Holy Sites associated with the Lord’s Passion and Death from earliest times. The English Pilgrim, gives us one of the first versions of these stations in the fifteenth centiry, a hundred years later an illustrated version of the stations was printed in Germany. But curiously, the number of stations varied widely, from seven to thirty stations. It was not until a hundred and fifty years ago that Pope Clement XII fixed the typical stations at fourteen in number.
The Stations and Us
But why do we pray the Stations of the Cross?
Quiet simply, our Holy Father reminds us, because, at times, life can be a cross, and the Stations remind us that “in times of trial and tribulation, we are not alone... Jesus is present with his love, he sustains [us] by his grace and grants the strength needed to carry on, to make sacrifices and to evercome every obstacle. And it is to this love of Christ that we must turn when human turmoil and difficulties threaten the unity of our lives and our families. The mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection inspires us to go on in hope: times of trouble and testing, when endured with Christ, with faith in him, already contain the light of the resurrection, the new life of a world reborn, the passover of all those who believe in his word.”1
Allow me, then, to offer some brief reflections on a few of the Stations.
Jesus is condemned to death
Here we meditate on two realities: to be unjustly condemned and to be the unjust accuser.
Seminarians get judged a lot. Words like composite review, evaluation and pastoral supervisor may not strike fear into your heart, but it’s understandable if they make you a bit queasy.
It’s not easy to be judged, but its particularly hard to be judged unjustly. It’s happened to all of us, and it even happens sometimes at Saint John’s Seminary.
And on those rare occasions when you are told you are this and you know you are that, when you are accused of doing this and you know you do that. when you are told to stop doing this but you know you never do that, stop....and think of the Apostles, beaten by the Temple guards, who left “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name,”2 or the martyr Polycarp being led to the pyre thanking God that he was deemed worthy to drink of the same cup as his Lord. But most of all, think of Jesus standing beaten and bloodied as they shout “Crucify him” and Pilate snarls “behold the man!”
Life is filled with injustices, while the cross overflows with grace.
Jesus carries His cross and Jesus is stripped of his garments
A seminarian in formation is called upon daily to take up his cross. The cross of worry about that course I cannot master, that concept I cannot understand, that priest whom I just can’t get to like me. The cross of broken relationships and daily disappointments, in myself and in those who might betray me. The cross of loneliness, of being afraid, or of temptations I cannot seem to control. The cross of coming face to face with my own inadequacies and to be reminded of it in a composite evaluation.
The other day I was going through files at my parents’ house from years ago and I came across four years of my composite evaluations from seminary. When I read them it all came back to me: the anger, the uncertainty, the whole sequence of emotions I used to engage to keep me from picking up that cross which Christ asked me to carry, the exquisite cross of discernment and formation. To pick up that cross and to carry it, not becuase I wanted to, but because he handed it to me.
Jesus carries his cross, and he invites me to do the same.
Jesus falls the first time, second time, and the third time
I hate to fall, but the older I get the more I do it. I might be rushing to catch a plane, or getting out of the car on an icy morning, or trying to rush up the stairs. I hate to fall because someone else might be watching. And due to my falling they might guess that I am not quite as omnipotent as I usually pretend to be.
Falling is hard. It hurts. And the temptation is often to just lay there in a heap, close your eyes, and hope they all go away. It’s hard to fall, but its harder still to get up.
I remember late one night being awoken by the doorbell in a rectory near the Mass Pike. It was a priest who had clearly had too much to drink. His car was parked diagonally in the driveway. I need a place to stay, he slurred, and I’m in no shape to drive home. Can I stay here?
I took him in, took his keys, put him to bed and saw him after the 7am Mass for breakfast. He was a prominent pastor and an old friend and now he was ashamed. You know, he quickly smiled, that was the only time.... I stopped him. I respected and cared for him too much to let him get away with that. You know what we’ve gotta do now, I said to him, with tears in my eyes. And he started to cry.
We went to the Bishop and he went to Guest House, and today he’s sober and alert, as Saint Paul would say. The devil stands no chance with him. But he fell and he had the courage, by the grace of God, to get up and walk the way of sorrows with the Lord.
Jesus meets His mother, Veronica, and the women of Jerusalem
Maybe one of the most neglected reflections in seminary formation is the importance of women in the life of the priest. Women in the life of Jesus, from his Blessed Mother, to Martha, to the first witness of the Resurrection...each play an indispensible role. They are his support, his disciples, and his friends.
The women who share the sorrows of the Passion of the Lord are models for us. One is his mother, who cradles his lifeless body as the Pieta. Another, the woman who stands faithfully at the foot of the cross, the woman of sorrows whose heart has been pierced with a sword as sharp as the nails which pierce the flesh of her son. In her we see our own mothers, both those who give us birth and those whose encouragement and strength help us to face suffering with the same courage and strentgh which they have modeled for us.
They are women like Veronica, who wipe the face of Jesus and relieve his suffering in the old man suffering from chemo, the old woman crying out in hospice, gently leading her home to God. The women who give their lives to service of the Church: from the DRE to sacristan, from the religious sister to the home schooloer. The women who will support you on your worst days with a kind word, their constant support, and a quiet smile.
The women of Jerusalem, or Spencer, or Norwood or Natick whom you meet along the way. The young bride, the single mother, the teary widow worn down by her years, the bright young college student, the successful executive, the passionate crusader for justice, the devout pilgrim....all the women of Jerusalem you will meet. Each of them witnesses to and pilgrims on the via dolorosa, whose own courage will inspire you and whose tears will bring you closer to Christ.
Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry the cross
You know the dilemma. Been there, done that. The poor guy down the hall just can’t get the concept. And the one next door just can’t wake up on time for Morning Prayer. Another just can’t seem to make friends. Another has the worst pastoral supervisor in the history of seminary formation. And another.... You get the picture.
It may look like a desperate seminarian, but it’s Jesus, walking down the corridors of this Seminary every day, waiting for you to play the part of the Cyrene.
There’s an old Scandanavian narrative poem called “Christ came down,” which I remember first reading when I was a seminarian in the last century. In the poem, Christ comes down from the cross and walks the main street of a small Scandanavian village, going house to house. He is bloodied, beaten and staggering as he knocks on the door of each quaint little cottage. People react to this unwelcome visitor by locking to door, closing the drapes and turning out the light on the porch. Soon the whole town is dark and silent and the crucified points to his cross and moans deeply, “Put me back up there! For I would rather hang from that cross than walk the streets of an earth where no one cares!”
It’s Jesus, walking down the corridors of this Seminary every day, waiting for you to play the part of the Cyrene.
Jesus is nailed to the cross and dies
The Paschal mystery is not just a high faluting theological concept. For the faithful Christian, life is a spiraling sequence of dark Good Fridays and splendrous Easter morns.
From the time we first go down into the font, we die with him and rise triumphant from our tombs, we know his paschal dying and rising as the school of love and the path to salvation.
“The cross of Christ,” Pope Benedict reminded us last year, “is the supreme sign of God’s love for every man and woman, the superabundant response to every person’s need for love. At times of trouble, when [we] have to face pain and adversity, let us look to Christ’s cross. There we can find the courage and strength to press on; there we can repeat with firm hope the words of Saint Paul: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”3
Jesus is taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb
The Lord has given his all...the last ounce of suffering and the last breath...he has loved us unto death, and he has given all, in a superabundance of overflowing love, so we are called to do.
As they took his lifeless body from the cross, as the Pieta, held him in her arms, that sacrifice seared their hearts, as did his words, “as I have loved you, so you should love.”
Joined with her, the Mother of Sorrows, we walk these Stations, we who along with him are unjustly condemned, fallen, humiliated and crucified. At such times:
“Let us gaze on the crucified Jesus, and let us ask in prayer: Enlighten our hearts, Lord, that we may follow you along the way of the cross. Put to death in us the ‘old man’ bound by selfishness, evil and sin. Make us ‘new men,’ men and women of holiness, transformed and enlivened by your love.”4
1- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Stations of the Cross 2012.
2- Acts 5:41.
3- Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Stations of the Cross, Good Friday 2012 (Cf. Romans 8:35, 37).
4 - Pope Benedict XVI, Homily at the Stations of the Cross, Good Friday 2011.