For centuries, Roman Catholic believers have celebrated the Stations of the Cross, or Way of the Cross, usually the week before Easter. The Stations of the Cross refer both to a series of depictions of Christ’s journey from the court of Pontius Pilate to the tomb and to a short pilgrimage centered around these stations.
Though the Stations of the Cross or Via Crucis is typically associated with Catholicism, some Protestant churches also participate in this or a modified version of the practice. Though certain denominations may not agree with all parts of the Stations of the Cross, there are truths to be gleaned from this practice for any believer, reminding us of Jesus’ death and sacrifice to save us from sin and redeem us.
What Are the Stations of the Cross?
Though the stations of the cross and the number of stations has varied throughout history and between Catholic and Protestant practice, the typical version consists of 14 stations. Those stations are as follows:
- Christ is condemned to death.
- The cross is laid upon Him.
- Jesus falls.
- Christ meets His mother, Mary.
- Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross.
- Veronica wipes Christ’s face.
- Jesus falls a second time.
- The women of Jerusalem weep over Jesus.
- Jesus falls a third time.
- Christ is stripped of His garments.
- Christ is crucified.
- Jesus dies on the cross.
- His body is taken down from the cross.
- He is laid in the tomb.
As objects, the stations may be made of sculpted or carved stone, wood, or metal, or they may be paintings or engravings. Usually, these are arranged around a church or cathedral, but sometimes they’re arranged along roads leading to a church or shrine.
Where Did the Stations of the Cross Originate?
The practice of visiting each station to pray originated with early Christian pilgrims who visited the historic sites of the events and walked the route believed to be from Pilate’s house to Christ’s tomb.
The routes that were taken varied at first, due to different interpretations of the route Christ took, but the path known as the Via Dolorosa eventually solidified as beginning at Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, which was believed to be where Jesus stood before Pilate, to the crucifixion hill of Calvary/Golgotha, and ending at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, which had been erected on the supposed site of Christ’s tomb in the fourth century after Constantine’s legalization of Christian worship. In 1342, Franciscan monks were given official custody of the sites.
Most medieval pilgrims, however, couldn’t afford the arduous journey to the Holy Land. Thus, stations were set up near churches instead. Some Vias Dolorosa were even measured to use the actual distances from the Holy Land between markers. The number of stations varied until Pope Clement XII set the number at 14 in 1731.
A succinct but more thorough account of the history of the practice from Baylor University’s Center for Christian Ethics can be found here.
What Is the Purpose of the Stations of the Cross?
According to the Catholic Online Encyclopedia, “The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death.”
Most simply, the stations of the cross, usually performed during Lent, especially on Good Friday, are about remembering Christ’s suffering for our sake. This is evidenced by the typical Catholic prayer uttered at each station:
Guide: We adore you O Christ and we praise you,
All: Because by your holy Cross you have redeemed the world.
During medieval times, a complicated system of indulgences (payment for the forgiveness of sins) became associated with the stations, and thus this was also a good way for worshippers to pursue indulgences.
Are the Stations of the Cross Biblically Accurate?
One may very well be confused upon reading the list of the 14 stations for the first time, wondering where exactly those events are in the Bible. Perhaps most noticeably, who is Veronica?
Some of these stations were added due to tradition or legend, not because of anything actually mentioned in the Bible. For example, Veronica is the name of a Roman Catholic saint. Legend has it that as Christ was walking to Calvary, this woman offered him her veil to wipe the sweat and blood from his face, and thus the image of his face was imprinted on the cloth.
The first known mention of this cloth was in the eighth century, 700 years later, in the hands of Pope John VII. The veil and legends became popular in the 13th through 15th centuries when people performed devotions in front of it to receive indulgences. (Learn more here.)
Due to situations such as this one, Protestants are often wary of associating with the stations of the cross. Not only is Veronica not mentioned, none of the four crucifixion accounts in the gospels record Jesus falling on the way (and certainly not three times), nor do they record Him meeting His mother, though it is recorded that He saw His mother once He was already on the cross (John 19:25-27).
Protestants furthermore historically distanced themselves from the stations because of their ties with indulgences, the Roman Catholic teaching that the church has the power to grant, under certain conditions, for certain actions, the remission of temporal punishment for sin.
Alternate stations are sometimes used to stick more closely to the biblical narrative. These versions only include events that are actually recorded in the Bible. A common Protestant version of the stations of the cross has eight stations:
- Pilate condemns Jesus to die.
- Jesus accepts His cross.
- Simon helps carry the cross.
- Jesus speaks to the women.
- Jesus is stripped of His garments.
- Jesus is nailed to the cross.
- Jesus cares for His mother.
- Jesus dies on the cross.
Other Protestant versions maintain 14 stations, but they are different than the Catholic version.
What Does This Mean?
Though the stations of the cross shouldn’t be used to gain forgiveness or be construed as actually participating in Christ’s suffering, they can offer important spiritual reminders.
During Easter, it’s exciting to celebrate Christ’s resurrection. However, the stations of the cross can remind us just how far Jesus went to save us, and what a miracle it truly is that He rose from the grave.
Taking time to think, pray, and meditate at each station can help us intentionally spend time with Christ, thanking Him, praising Him, and learning from Him.
The important parts of the stations of the cross are not the ritual prayers, the placement of stations, or even what stations exactly are included. The most important part is remembering Jesus’ love, sacrifice, and forgiveness and drawing near to Him.
Photo Credit: Fourth and fifth stations of the cross carvings in a church in Sittard, Netherlands. ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/debbiehelbing
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.