The Stations of the Cross

For centuries, the Stations of the Cross have served as a powerful devotional practice for Christians worldwide. This poignant pilgrimage through the final moments of Jesus Christ's life has become an integral part of Catholic tradition, fostering contemplation, spiritual growth, and a deep connection with the sacrifice of Christ.

Although the Stations can be prayed and reflected upon at any time of year, they are most commonly prayed during Lent, as a way to aid in spiritual preparation for Easter.

Origins of the Stations of the Cross

The roots of the Stations of the Cross can be traced back to the earliest Christian communities in Jerusalem. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, early Christians began visiting the places associated with His suffering, death, and resurrection. These devout pilgrims would walk the path, or Via Dolorosa (Latin for “Way of Suffering”), so that by retracing Jesus' steps they could grow closer to Him. It is believed that this retracing was often done in reverse, beginning with the crucifixion and moving backwards from there.

Initially, the sites visited were based on oral tradition rather than a set structure. The earliest accounts of this practice can be found in the writings of the fourth-century pilgrim Egeria, who documented her experiences in Jerusalem. Her descriptions mention various locations along the route, with prayers and reflections taking place at each stop.

Over time, the number and sequence of stations became more defined. The fifth-century historian Eucherius of Lyon wrote about a pilgrimage he made to Jerusalem, mentioning specific stations along the way. By the Middle Ages, the practice of the Stations of the Cross had spread throughout Europe, even as far as England.

The term “stations” to describe these stops is believed to have been coined by William Wey, an English pilgrim who visited the Holy Land in the 1400s and described the manner in which pilgrims followed Jesus’ path before His crucifixion. It seems that the custom of following Jesus’ path in a more chronological order – beginning with His condemnation to death and moving toward His crucifixion – became the standard around this time.  

During the medieval period, when travel to the Holy Land became increasingly challenging, the desire to replicate the Jerusalem pilgrimage led to the creation of stations within local churches. These indoor stations, known as the "Via Crucis" (Way of the Cross) allowed individuals to participate in the devotion without leaving their communities.

The number of stations varied during this period, often ranging from seven to thirty. However, it was not until the 16th century that the standard set of 14 stations, commonly observed today, began to solidify. These stations represent specific moments of Christ's Passion, from His condemnation to His burial, culminating in the resurrection.

The Stations

The now standard 14 Stations of the Cross are as follows:

1st Station: Jesus is condemned to death

2nd Station: Jesus carries His cross

3rd Station: Jesus falls the first time

4th Station: Jesus meets His Mother

5th Station: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross

6th Station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

7th Station: Jesus falls the second time

8th Station: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

9th Station: Jesus falls a third time

10th Station: Jesus clothes are taken away

11th Station: Jesus is nailed to the cross

12th Station: Jesus dies on the cross

13th Station: The body of Jesus is taken down from the cross

14th Station: Jesus is laid in the tomb

These 14 stations are sometimes followed by a 15th station, which depicts and empty tomb Jesus rising from the dead. Although this is less traditional, it is intended to remind us that Jesus’ death was not really the end.

The Stations of the Cross serve as a visual and spiritual representation of Jesus' journey to Calvary. Each station prompts us to reflect on the suffering, sacrifice, and unconditional love demonstrated by Christ. Through meditation and prayer, participants are encouraged to enter into His passion and empathize with His physical and emotional pain. There are many different versions and settings of the Stations. Though they follow the same 14 (or 15) sequences, they may be accompanied by various prayers, reflections, or scripture readings.

The stations also hold symbolic significance, representing various aspects of our human condition and the Christian journey. They depict Jesus' encounters with His mother, Simon of Cyrene, and Veronica, inviting contemplation on themes of compassion, selflessness, and courage.

Furthermore, the Stations of the Cross are not solely focused on sorrow and suffering; they also remind believers of the hope and ultimate victory found in the resurrection. Although the stations themselves depict moments of sorrow, it is our understanding as Christians that this great sorrow led to Christ’s ultimate victory over death – and, by extension, our salvation. The Stations of the Cross, therefore, serve as a testament to the transformative power of Christ's sacrifice and the promise of eternal life.

To this day, almost all Catholic churches include visual depictions of the Stations, typically as paintings, plaques, stained glass windows, statues, or other media placed around the church in sequence. This serves as a powerful reminder about Jesus’ journey toward His death, which, ultimately, brings us new life.


By Elizabeth Craig

Updated 07-07-2023