You may be curious about the Stations of the Cross if you're just beginning to learn about Christian spirituality — particularly Catholic spirituality.
Many people know that the cross represents Jesus’ crucifixion and that it’s a traditional symbol of Christian faith worldwide.
But what exactly are the Stations of the Cross?
Here's our breakdown of the Stations of the Cross: where they come from, what they represent, and what they mean in our lives today.
The Stations of the Cross refer to a series of depictions of Christ’s journey. They represent 14 key moments in the trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus Christ. Stations of the Cross, or the Way of the Cross, have been celebrated by Roman Catholic believers for centuries, typically right before Easter.
In addition to churches, you might be able to find them in cemeteries, corridors of hospitals, religious houses, or even on mountainsides.
The key scenes at each station are:
As part of the ritual at each station, there are specific prayers performed together by the priest and the church's congregants. Although you can find Stations of the Cross depictions in different religious denominations, the Catholic church is the institution largely devoted to the practice.
Even though the Stations of the Cross seem simple, they have a long and rich history.
In ancient times, the Blessed Mother is believed to have visited the scenes of Christ's passion daily after his ascension into heaven. However, it wasn't until 313 AD that Constantine officially legalized Christianity and marked key locations along Jesus' journey.
Originally, pilgrims in the fourth century visited the historical sites of the events of Christ's death and walked the path believed to be from Pilate's house to Christ's tomb to pray at each station.
The Franciscans began guarding the sacred stations in the Holy Land in 1342, protecting them against harm and ruin.
Those who traveled to the sites received indulgences for praying at the following stations: Pilate’s house, where Christ met His mother, where He spoke to the women, where He met Simon of Cyrene, where the soldiers stripped Him of His garments, where He was nailed to the cross, and at His tomb.
But it was not until the 16th century that this pathway was officially named the Via Dolorosa, translated to Sorrowful Path, or as we know it today, the Way of the Cross or Stations of the Cross.
Leonard of Port Maurice, a Franciscan of the Riformella, established what we know today as the 14 Stations of the Cross.
At the end of the 17th century, the erection of the stations in churches grew in popularity. Aware that only a few people could travel to the Holy Land because of Muslim oppression, Pope Innocent XI granted the Franciscans the right to build shrines inside their churches and granted the faithful the same indulgences.
While there have been changes to the Stations of the Cross throughout past centuries, the fundamentals have remained the same.
In modern times, Catholics conduct the Stations of the Cross ritual during Lent or Good Friday. By doing so, they strive to understand the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to more fully appreciate His resurrection on Easter Sunday.
The Stations of the Cross are typically associated with Catholicism, but some Protestant churches also participate in this ritual or a modified version of the practice.
Although certain denominations may not agree with all parts of the Stations of the Cross, there are truths that any believer can glean from this practice, reminding us of Jesus’ death and sacrifice to save us from sin and bring redemption to the people of the world.
For Catholics, the Stations of the Cross are a 14-step devotion that they commonly use as a mini pilgrimage as the individual moves from station to station. The ritual is designed to imitate how pilgrims performed the actual journey through the Holy Land centuries ago.
At each station, the individual recalls and meditates on a specific event from Christ's last day. The individual recites each prayer at a particular station and moves on to the next one until all 14 are complete.
It’s also traditional to stop at each station and say the prayer: “We adore you, O Christ, and praise you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
Christians can use this ritual or similar ones today to reflect on Christ's death and resurrection and its impact on us even now.
The observance of the Stations of the Cross is an ancient tradition that still holds meaning to Christians centuries later.
While simply observing the Stations of the Cross is not equivalent to participating in Christ's suffering, they can serve a spiritual purpose. Jesus Christ's journey to the cross reminds us just how much He sacrificed for us and what a miracle His resurrection has been.
By intentionally spending time with Christ by stopping at each station and taking time to think, pray, and meditate, we have the opportunity to thank Him, praise Him, and learn from Him.
We all should remember that the stations are not so much about the ritual prayers or how they are placed, but rather about recalling and drawing near to Jesus' love, sacrifice, and forgiveness.