While the service of Stations of the Cross did not develop until after the schism of the 11th century, it is based on ancient custom originating in Jerusalem. Western Rite Orthodox Christians are given permission to use post-Schism devotional material that is consistent with Orthodox theology and a logical development of earlier practice.
In the early centuries of the church, pilgrims from all over the world joined with the Christians of the Jerusalem Patriarchate in visiting the sites associated with Our Lord’s passion, death and resurrection. Seeing the place where He was condemned by Pilate and being physically present in the place where Simon of Cyrene helped carry the Cross were powerful aids to devotion and repentance. Praying in the places where Christ was crucified, buried and rose again brought wonder, joy and hope to pilgrims. The desire to share in this experience by those who could not go to the Holy Land led Petronius, the 5th century bishop of Bologna, Italy, to build a series of chapels at the Monastery of San Stefano representing these holy sites. In the 13th century, Franciscan monks who had established a presence in Jerusalem formulated the service of Stations of the Cross as a way for Christians everywhere to walk the way of the Cross.
Traditionally there are fourteen stations, all but five drawn directly from Scripture. Three of the remaining stations speak of Jesus falling as he journeyed towards Golgotha. From Scripture we know that Jesus endured dreadful punishment and torture at the hands of guards and soldiers. The Romans also compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry Jesus’ Cross, an unlikely act if Jesus had been physically able to carry the Cross without falling. Another station, not derived from Scripture, speaks of Jesus meeting his mother. We know that Mary stood by the Cross; surely she met her son somewhere along the way as well. The final station which is not taken from the Gospels tells of a woman giving Christ her veil that he might wipe his face, and that the image of his face was miraculously transferred to the cloth. Greek tradition names the woman “Berenice” (or “victory”) which was later Latinized as “Veronica,” though some claim that this name was derived from the Latin for “true” (“vera”) and the Greek for “image” (“eikon”). This cloth may be the image spoken of in the legend of King Abgar of Edessa; in the 6th century Evagrius, Bishop of Edessa spoke of the image of Jesus “not made by human hands.” These non-Biblical stations are all logically derived from the witness of Scripture and Tradition, even as many of the Church’s hymns (both Eastern and Western) call us to meditate on the mighty works of God, accomplished for our salvation.
The hymn Stabat Mater has become associated with Stations of the Cross, the verses sung as the faithful move from one station to the next. Authorship of this hymn is uncertain, but attribution is most often given to Jacapone da Todi (1230-1306) or Pope Innocent III (d. 1216). Remembering the prophecy of Simeon at the time of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple that a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, the hymn describes the sorrow of the Theotokos in seeing her son suffer. In the 18th century, the Stabat Mater was also appointed as the Sequence hymn for the September 15th feast of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Familiar to many Eastern Orthodox Christians is the hymn “a Most Grieving Mother” (St. Ambrose Hymnal #90) a Ukranian hymn of similar style and sentiments.
It is common to conclude the devotion with the brief service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, providing the faithful an opportunity to worship and adore Christ as He extends His risen and glorified life to be with His people sacramentally on earth. In this Lenten season, may we remember our Lord’s suffering and death by walking the Way of the Cross, just as we will celebrate His Resurrection from the dead in the great festival of Pascha.
The form for Stations of the Cross and the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus used at St. Gregory’s may be found here.