Almost any day you go into the Old City of Jerusalem you will probably bump into a crowd of people walking behind a cross. If you follow them you will find that every so often they will stop and pray and perhaps another member of the group will take over carrying the cross until the next time they stop. As they walk they will probably be silent, just walking, following, trying to keep together as they jostle and get jostled in the busy narrow streets, that wind along and up and across the Old City and through the confusing bazaar, the souk. They will pass by people selling almost anything and everything. Some people are selling to tourists and pilgrims, the religious knickknacks that we like to get as mementos of a pilgrimage, something for the vicar, something for a friend, something for the church. But most of the stalls and the shops are selling the normal stuff of life, meat, vegetables and fruit, the multi-coloured spices that fill the air with the most delicious of smells. There are the stalls that sell clothes and shoes, electrical goods, things for the house, some jewellery and sweets. You can buy almost anything in the bazaar.
Follow the crowd who are following the cross. Perhaps a Guide is leading them, perhaps a priest, or a religious brother or sister. They will be trying to keep them focused on what they are doing and not distracted by the sights and sounds and smells of their environment. It’s hard to concentrate, hard to pray when there is so much happening around you, familiar and unfamiliar. And you need a guide because where you go next is not always obvious, the places to stop are sometimes close together at other times further apart and sometimes it even involves turning back on yourself.
All of a sudden everyone has to stand back against the side walls. A small tractor is making its way down the steep, stepped slope, pulling a wooden truck behind it. A man drives, a boy is taking a lift in the back, they’ve either just delivered something to someone or going to pick something up. A group of soldiers stands at a corner, uniforms, a gun on their hip, not a comfortable sight. A mother with her children bustles past you, hurrying to get something done. A lad with a tray of glasses with tea in them overtakes you.
As you follow the group they suddenly leave the souk by some steps and begin climbing those. For the first time for a while you can see the sky, you can feel the sun. The group is gone and you carry on. What had these people been doing, with their cross, stopping, praying? They were walking the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the Stations of the Cross. These were pilgrims and part of every Christian pilgrimage in this city of faith, this city of contradictions, this city of peace, will be to walk the Stations.
It may not be part of their tradition at home, but, when you away, you have permission to experience something new, new food, new drink, new religious traditions. And anyway, they want to, they want to walk this road, follow this Way and stop at these Stations, because this is the way that Jesus walked, his route from condemnation to crucifixion.
As St Mark tells us
Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. (Mark 8.34)
So the Stations of the Cross provide a way of doing this, in a very literal, yet spiritual way. And my invitation to you is to make this journey with me as we move from Passion Sunday to Easter Day. I’m happy to be your guide; it will be a privilege for me. I’ve made this particular journey many times with many people and though the route is always the same in fact the journey is always different. I’ve made this journey so many times and I can make sure that you don’t get lost. I’ve made this journey so many times but not always in Jerusalem.
I’ve been to the Holy Land perhaps twenty times now and on each of those visits we have followed the Stations of the Cross. But I have made the journey outside Jerusalem and that is the wonderful thing about Stations – you don’t have to travel all that way to do them, the journey comes to you.
We owe the preservation of the sites associated with Jesus to the early Christians who kept a knowledge of where things were but principally to St Helena who made it her vocation to find the most important places of Jesus birth, death and resurrection and establish churches on them. She commissioned a search for the true cross and finding it then had built the church of the Holy Sepulchre over both Calvary, Golgotha, and the garden and tomb in which Jesus was buried and from where he rose. Pilgrims such as the Spanish nun, Egeria, who was in the Holy Land from 381 to 384, began to make the hazardous journey to experience things for themselves. The Franciscans in 1342 were given the responsibility of guarding the holy places and making sure that they were maintained and they still perform this role in many of the holy sites.
But not everyone could get to Jerusalem and so Jerusalem came to them. In the 5th century St Petronius, the Bishop of Bologna, had in the monastery of St Stefano, a series of connected chapels built each one representing one of the holy sites. You could move between the chapels as a virtual way of moving through Jerusalem. Those who had taken part in the Crusades came back with stories of what they had seen and so in parish churches and great cathedrals a series of Stations developed, depictions of the scenes in the final journey that Jesus made, the same as the chapels along the Via Dolorosa, at which people could mediate and make a spiritual journey.
The Stations of the Cross as we know them date back to the mid-fifteenth century but it was in 1731, that Pope Clement XII extended to all churches the right to have the stations and fixed the number at fourteen.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross. Nowadays a fifteenth is often added to conclude the Stations which focus on the cross, passion and death of the Lord, with the resurrection. My invitation to you is to travel with me the 14+1 stations, one a day from Passion Sunday to Easter Day. Many of the Stations are scriptural, but not all of them, some are part of the tradition that grew up around the Via Dolorosa. That doesn’t matter as we will be using our imagination to make the journey and see where it leads us.
And why make the journey? Because Jesus says to us ‘Follow me’ and that means walking the narrow path and often difficult path, to life. Who wouldn’t want to walk with Jesus, it is part of discipleship and however you have been keeping Lent so far this, I hope, will enable you and I to arrive at Easter Day with even greater joy, foot sore and weary maybe, but full of hope, love and joy as we find the tomb empty.
The journey will begin on Passion Sunday, 22 March. This is your invitation to travel with me.
whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.