by Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito, Bishop of Palm Beach
The season of Lent has offered us the opportunity to reflect upon the Cross of Christ. On Ash Wednesday we were signed with that Cross on our foreheads, signifying that the Cross must be uppermost on our minds during this season. Holy Week now places before us the passion and death of Christ in a most intense manner, in order to help us experience the depth of God’s love for us. The more we reflect upon Christ’s Cross, the more we know that love. The Gospel of St. John expresses the fullness of God’s revelation of His love during Holy Week when it states that, before the Last Supper and the ensuing passion of Christ, “Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he would love them to the end” (Jn 13:1). The Cross of Holy Week reveals the endless love of God as nothing else can.
A constant theme of the writing of the saints of the Church is their stressing of the necessity of meditating on the Cross of Christ in our spiritual lives. St. Paul himself is the first and best example of this. So many of his letters emphasize the Cross of Christ as primary in the life of the believer. It is obvious that St. Paul meditated primarily on the crucifixion of Christ as the source of his spiritual strength. As he tells us, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1Cor 2:2). St. Paul’s theology of Christ’s suffering is perhaps best summed up in his words, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor 1:18).
An excellent devotion for meditating on the Cross of Christ is that of the Stations of the Cross. This popular prayer has a long history in the life of the Church which goes back to its earliest days. Pilgrimages to the Holy Land to visit the places made sacred by Christ’s suffering were especially inviting to the early Christians as they are today. Various “stations” were marked in Jerusalem to commemorate these places and their number has varied over the years. By the 5th century the first stations built outside of Palestine were established in the church of St. Stefano in Bologna which included five stations. The Franciscan custody of the Holy Land in the 14th century made the practice of visiting the stations of Christ’s suffering even more common and by the 16th century 14 became a common number. By the 18th century the 14 we have today were accepted as the standard ones. It is interesting to note that Pope John Paul II celebrated an alternative 14 stations on Good Friday of 1991. These may be found on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website – https://www.usccb.org/prayers/stations-cross-life.
Almost every church and chapel has a set of 14 Stations of the Cross within them. The stations are made by walking from one to another and meditating on the suffering of Christ as depicted in each of these stations. One can make this devotion in a group or individually. There are countless approved prayer manuals for the stations from the well known one of St. Alphonsus Liguori to many others which are also biblically based. There are stations published from the Good Friday celebrations of Saint Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis at the Colosseum. One does not need a manual to make the Stations of the Cross as personal reflection is also acceptable. One likewise can make the Stations of the Cross through the many which are now available on websites. Obviously, these can be done away from church as is the case with other small personal depictions of the stations helpful for meditation.
The essential part of this popular devotion is experiencing the love of God as revealed in the various aspects and steps of Christ’s crucifixion. To understand better the physical and emotional pain that He felt as He moved to Calvary and in His ultimate crucifixion is to understand more the depth of God’s love for us. The Stations of the Cross present the human drama which was part of Christ’s suffering. Last year on Good Friday, Pope Francis led the Way of the Cross which included meditations prepared by children. This took place in front of Saint Peter’s Basilica and was meant to demonstrate how the Passion of Christ touches all levels of life and speaks the love of God even to young children. This was well articulated in the opening prayer which said: “Dear Jesus, you know that we children also have crosses to carry, crosses that are no lighter or heavier than those of adults, but still real crosses, crosses that weigh us down, even at night. Only you know what they are and take care of them seriously – only you.”
During these final days of Lent and especially during Holy Week, we look to the Cross of Christ and are touched to the depths of our being by the overwhelming love of God. This is a love that we do not deserve, but one that God freely pours out upon us despite our sins. This is a love that chooses us first and to which we respond in an imperfect manner. We become more secure in the face of God’s love revealed on the Cross and which He exhibited as He walked to Calvary and as He encountered those who met Him on the way. From Pontius Pilate, the soldiers, the bystanders, Simon of Cyrene, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem, Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, the thieves crucified with Him, John the Apostle, and all those who formed the circle of relationships which the Lord embraced in His suffering love on the way of the Cross, including His own Blessed Mother, we experience His love for each of us in a unique manner. The Way of the Cross is a way of relationships, and those relationships include each of us in a personal encounter of love. The realization that Christ would have gone to His cross and suffered in the way He did if one were the only person alive and to have ever sinned is to understand truly the depth of God’s love which is beyond our greatest hope and imagination!
We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world. May the Way of the Cross – the way of love – lead us to the joy of Easter!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
April 8, 2022