A collaboration between an artist and a preacher, Praying the Stations of the Cross: Finding Hope in a Weary Land by Margaret Adams Parker and Katherine Sonderegger (Eerdmans, 2019) is an ecumenical on-ramp to the ancient Lenten practice named in the title. A substantial introductory section provides a history of the Stations of the Cross, which are rooted in Holy Land pilgrimages, and selections from centuries’ worth of passion art, song, and other texts, showing the range of ways this old, old story has been engaged in various eras and locales. The core of the book is a service of scripture, prayer, image, and meditation, featuring original woodcuts by Parker alongside theological reflections by Sonderegger, who writes in a pastoral voice; together they draw us into the biblical narrative and its present-day implications, emphasizing how Christ’s mercy goes out and embraces all the sins and sorrows of the world. The final section provides resources for further study as well as an afterword by each of the authors, discussing their respective vocational callings and their approaches to this book project.
Having grown up in a Baptist church, I don’t think I ever heard of the Stations of the Cross until college, and even then, it was just a vague head knowledge. My real entry point into the Stations—into a more experiential knowing of them—was through art, which I began studying more deeply about a decade ago and incorporating, in a loose way, into my spiritual practice. I came to realize that traditional images like the Ecce Homo and the Holy Face of Jesus and the Crucifixion and the Pietà, though often made to stand alone, are sometimes made as part of a fourteen-piece sequence that takes you all the way down the road to Calvary, from the praetorium to the tomb. And since the Middle Ages this sequence of images has had liturgies to go along with it.
The Stations of the Cross are about bearing witness, Parker writes, to the suffering death of Jesus Christ. They’re a way of being with a friend in his last moments (“How dreadful is the death that takes place alone, unwatched, unwept!”), and we do so in participation with fellow witnesses across time and place:
Countless pilgrims have walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross. We imagine that great cloud of witnesses, moving across centuries and cultures. We glimpse them in the winding streets of Jerusalem, in magnificent cathedrals of Europe, in dusty villages in South America. They are rich and poor, young and elderly, vigorous and dying, joyous and heartsick. They pray beside images resplendent in gold and rich color, in front of stark depictions in wood and unbaked clay, with Stations marked by numbers only. They speak and chant and pray in a myriad of languages. They weep. They stand silent. It is remarkable and moving to think of all of these worshipers—in ways so many and so varied—bearing witness to Jesus’s atoning work.
Today the practice of the Stations, for centuries primarily a devotion for Roman Catholics, has spread into the other liturgical denominations and even beyond. It takes many forms, visually and liturgically, from the sparest set of recitations to the most ornate combination of images, texts, and hymns. But to some Christians the practice can seem strange, bizarre, or even offensive, a kind of lugubrious piety with the puzzling addition of nonbiblical scenes. Why would the Stations dwell on this suffering, offering prayers that often seem to focus on Christ’s wounds? What is the spiritual and theological merit of the Stations? And how can a valid spiritual discipline include six (out of fourteen) scenes that are absent from the New Testament account of Christ’s passion? (7–8)
The authors go on to answer these questions, demystifying the Stations—drawing out their theological meaning, scriptural significance, and pastoral dimensions. They clarify the common misconception that the Stations are only about suffering, doubt, and darkness; actually, they are just as much about hope and redemption and resurrection. They are consolatory by nature.
Though centered on the person of Jesus and his journey to the cross, the Stations can also be a way of bearing witness to the suffering of those around us. Historically, they have sometimes taken this form, emphasizing that Christ stands beside all those who suffer. The prayers in Praying the Stations, written by Sonderegger, reflect this concern, interceding for those who bear heavy burdens; who are stricken by shame, guilt, or fear; who live in places of famine or disaster; and so on.
(Related post: “‘Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More’ by Margaret Adams Parker”)
One of the most powerful reflections in the book is on Station XIII, “Jesus Is Placed in the Arms of His Mother.” While acknowledging the uniqueness of Mary, Sonderegger also identifies her as every woman who is vulnerable through the suffering of those she loves. The image of Mary holding her dead son, therefore, can speak to the women of Ramah or Hiroshima, Auschwitz or the Jim Crow South, or any number of other mothers, wives, daughters, sisters who have lost loved ones to violence.
Praying the Stations isn’t merely a theoretical introduction to the Stations of the Cross; it’s practical, hands-on. The new worship service of the Stations that it offers gives readers the opportunity to see for themselves the powerful impact such a practice can have. The book would be suitable for individual or group use—I can envision it being used in small-group settings or corporate worship, or in private devotions.
As one who has never participated in a formal “Praying the Stations” liturgy—being from a denomination that does not readily avail itself of this rich devotional resource from the church’s past—I found the book incredibly helpful in understanding the purpose of the Stations and how a church community of any type could make use of them. The book is perfect for beginners (I’d especially recommend it to pastors and liturgists), while also being of value to those already familiar with the Stations, as it provides a fresh encounter, through word and image, with Jesus’s “Way of Sorrows.” The dual perspective of artist and preacher-theologian is a real asset. Clear, wise, and compassionate.
I’ve featured artists’ interpretations of the Stations of the Cross several times on this blog and its predecessor, sometimes as part of a roundup, sometimes in full-fledged posts:
- Two years ago I developed a Stations of the Cross tour through the Smithsonian American Art Museum, engrafting the story of Christ’s passion into other stories of human suffering.
- I covered the annually recurring Art Stations project, founded by Aaron Rosen and Catriona Laing, for three successive years: in Washington, DC, in 2017, New York City in 2018, and Amsterdam in 2019.
- Greg Halvorsen Schreck’s stunning Via Dolorosa series of black-and-white photographs, featuring ethnically diverse models, evolved into a video collaboration with graphic designer Jeremy Botts.
- The African Art Museum of the Society of African Missions has several sets of Stations in its collection, including carved wooden panels by Lamidi Olonade Fakeye (1925–2009), a Yoruba Muslim, and linocut prints by Bruce Onobrakpeya (1932–), who is Urhobo.
- Stations of the Cross exhibitions are commonplace in London churches. Two such examples are the one in 2014 at St. Marylebone’s Parish Church, which included Paul Fryer’s Black Pieta and Polly Morgan’s Small Still Birth, and the fourteen-video installation by artist-priest Mark Dean shown at St. Stephen Walbrook, using the church’s round stone altar by Henry Moore as a projection surface.