LAST MONTH I put together a video for the Open Table Network (OTN), which was broadcast on Palm Sunday, featuring a modern reflection on the traditional Christian devotion called the Stations of the Cross.
Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week, the week before Easter, when Christians remember Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem for the final days of his ministry before he died on the cross and rose to new life.
All four Gospel accounts describe Jesus coming into the city, surrounded by crowds laying palm branches in his path, singing ‘Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’. ‘Hosanna’ in Hebrew means ‘Save us, we pray’. The cries of the crowds echo the words of the Hebrew psalms – they thought Jesus was the one who would free them from oppression by the Romans.
Within a week, Jesus was betrayed, sentenced to death, and brutally killed by the Romans. He wasn’t who they thought he was.
In Holy Week, the week before Easter, we are encouraged to reflect on the stories of this important time in Jesus’ life and our faith. The Stations of the Cross can help us do this. They have formed part of Christian spiritual practice in the season of Lent, the time of preparation for Easter, for many centuries, because they enable us to engage actively with the path of suffering walked by Jesus.
They originated when early Christians visited Jerusalem and wanted to follow literally in the footsteps of Jesus. They would stop and pause for prayer and devotion at various points, or ‘stations’. In the late fourteenth century the Franciscan religious order were given the responsibility for the holy places of Jerusalem, and they erected images at various points on the pilgrims’ route to aid their reflections. Eventually those pilgrims brought the practice back to their home countries. These images are now common in many churches.
The number of stations has varied immensely through the centuries, from as few as five to as many as thirty-six, but the now traditional number of fourteen was established by Pope Clement XII in 1731 – nine scriptural stations and a further five based on popular devotion. Some modern versions also add a fifteenth, to represent the Resurrection – Jesus rising to new life at Easter.
To illustrate the Stations of the Cross reflections, I used a series of striking images by US Lutheran pastor and artist Mary Button, who has created many versions of this popular devotion. The theme of this series is ‘The Struggle for LGBT Equality. In her introduction to this series she writes:
Around the same time I started incorporating the visual vocabulary of Christianity in my artwork, I read a book that changed my life: The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts: Jesus’ Doings and the Happenings by Clarence Jordan. In it, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are translated into a Southern vernacular. Jew and Gentile became ‘white man and Negro’ and the crucifixion was described in terms of a lynching. Published in the 1960s, The Cotton Patch Gospels sought to translate the Gospels into the language of the Civil Rights Movement. Of his translation of crucifixion to lynching, Jordan writes,
“Our crosses are so shined, so polished, so respectable that to be impaled on one of them would seem to be a blessed experience. We have thus emptied the term ‘crucifixion’ of its original content of terrific emotion, or violence, of indignity and stigma, of defeat.”
Reading an account of Christ’s passion that ends not with Christ nailed to a tree in Judea, but hanging from a noose tied to a pine tree in Georgia, compelled me to begin to re-imagine, re-define, and re-contextualize the crucifixion.
I believe that we can only begin to understand the meaning of the crucifixion when we take away our polished and shiny crosses and look for the cross in our own time, in our own landscape. When we look for the crucified body of Christ in the stories of people on the margins of our societies, then we are able to live the Gospel and not simply read it.newwaysministry.org/2013/03/29/good-friday-stations-of-the-cross-and-the-struggle-for-lgbt-equality
The video also includes short reflections on Mary’s images by Kittredge Cherry, a lesbian Christian author, minister and historian who writes regularly about LGBTQ spirituality and the arts at Q Spirit.
OTN Trustee Augustine Tanner-Ihm & Co-Chair Sarah Hobbs led reflections on who are the crucified among us today. They include LGBT+ Christians who still experience judgement from the churches. Just this month we have seen harmful statements from the Vatican on blessing same-sex couples, and the Evangelical Alliance on conversion therapy.