As Lent is rapidly approaching, I find myself contemplating the devotion “The Stations of the Cross.” For those who use it, it is an incredibly meaningful devotion. And yet there are those who avoid it… who find it very difficult to be focused on those last painful, suffering moments of our Lord Jesus Christ. After all, is there not that which causes most humans to recoil from the suffering of another human being when the sufferer’s pain and agony become too pressingly apparent? Is it not our medical practice to give people that which alleviates pain—and not something that increases it?
So why would we voluntarily participate in a devotion like The Stations of the Cross that highlights our awareness of the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ? The mental pictures that are formed are not pleasant. Neither is the accompanying meditation, if our thoughts are directed in the usual fashion taught by patriarchs and reformers both: Jesus bore this for our sins and therefore our reaction should be one of profound gratitude.
Generally, in the case of most folks, the reaction is not profound gratitude; it is, rather, profound guilt. If Jesus bore this because of my sins, then I have caused his suffering and therefore I should feel guilt. So goes the typical reasoning and reaction to the passion of the Lord Jesus.
While there is profound truth conveyed in that way of thinking, it is also profoundly narcissistic. How can I explain the profound narcissism with which many think on the passion of the Lord Jesus?
Here’s a try.
The passion of Jesus impacts me. But it is not just all about me. The passion of Jesus is bigger than me, bigger than my sin, bigger than my guilt, bigger than my concerns—the sacrifice of the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world, of which my particular participation and yours is but a small part, probably about like a drop of water in a stormy ocean battering against the shore at high tide. It might comfort me to think about Jesus taking away my sins, but the scope of sin in the world is far more sweeping that anything that I may have done or might do; and that is why the passion of the Lord Jesus is not solely about my narcissism.
A few years ago, I came to a wider appreciation about the passion of the Lord Jesus Christ. This came to me after years of praying with (and praying about) the passion. That is, simply:
All human beings walk in the way of the cross. We may not like it. We may deny it. Still we all, essentially, have to deal with pain and suffering in our lives. But despite the propensity that people have these days to proclaim their victimhood, no one person has an exclusive corner on the market for pain and suffering. So, we do not have to deal with it just in our own lives but in the lives of those around us. We have to deal with the consequences of sin—and not just our own, but the scope of sin in the world.
So, the scope of the passion of Jesus is not just about “me.” It is about the human condition.
As a consequence, when one prays The Stations of the Cross, walking in the way of the Cross becomes a means of interceding for the brokenness of the world. A place where one can go—not just with one’s own personal grief—but where one can also shed tears for the human condition. A place where one’s own personal sorrows can find redemption, but also a place where one can pray for those who are ill and for those who are hungry, or homeless.
It is a place where one can pray for those who are affected by the violence of the world—a violence that has become so widespread that none of us is immune or isolated from it.
The pivotal prayer that sums this up is one that is a collect for Fridays at Morning Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer; it is a collect of the passion of Jesus:
…mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace…