Episcopal Explained: Stations of the Cross

Stations of the Cross for e-blast
Creative Services

The word “stations” in reference to Jesus’ journey to the cross first appears in the writings of the English traveler, author, and monastic William Wey in 1458.  However, the devotional custom dates back to at least the Middle Ages when wealthy believers would travel from Europe to the Holy Land to reenact the Way of the Cross or Via Dolorosa.  One motivation was the intense medieval interest in the physical suffering of Jesus in the final hours of his life. 

Lengthy travel was not something the average Christian peasant could afford, and since the Turks closed off Middle East shrines for several hundred years, representations of various events of the first Good Friday, either mentioned in scripture or developed through oral tradition, began to appear in Catholic Churches in Europe. Fourteen is the most popular number for traditional Stations of the Cross, although an ambitious Franciscan friar in the 18th century was said to have developed a series of 571 stops.

Since the Anglican Church remained part of Catholicism until 1534, the Stations of the Cross are not unfamiliar to Episcopalians, especially as a devotional practice during Lent and Holy Week. The Stations appear in the church’s Book of Occasional Services.  The hymn Stabat Mater, long associated with the Way of the Cross, appears as "At the cross her vigil keeping," Hymn 159 in The Hymnal 1982. 

While public commemorations of Jesus’ walk to the Crucifixion have occurred for centuries, there has been a renewed interest in public art displays related to the stations. After success with the “public art pilgrimage” model they used in London in Lent 2016 and then later in Washington, DC, Aaron Rosen and a team of other Christian theologians and art writers decided to organize a contemplative journey, including fourteen stations across Manhattan, which opened on Ash Wednesday February 14 and runs until Easter Day, Sunday April 1. Trinity Church Wall Street is sponsoring the exhibit (artstations.org) and is hosting the thirteenth station in the south courtyard.

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