The pungent incense carried with it a flood of memories, years kneeling on upholstered kneelers similar to this one.
Years spent trying to connect to that figure suspended from the ceiling affixed to a wooden cross.
Feeling disconnected, unseen by deity. Time spent trying to figure out how I was supposed to behave holy when I clearly was not.
Yet this Good Friday found me at a Catholic Church at noon, participating in the Stations of the Cross.
Unable to explain why, I only know that within my heart a desire arose to review the stations of the cross. I knew it was the Holy Spirit beckoning me, so I followed my instinct.
Familiarity with these promptings have taught me that often, spiritual insight awaits my obedience. So I follow the prompt, expectantly. I follow my heart, not my understanding.
For the unfamiliar, the stations are fourteen artistic demonstrations depicting Christ carrying His cross to the crucifixion, ending with his entombment. The artworks are typically placed at intervals along the walls of the sanctuary. At each one a priest leads the congregants in prayers, both spoken and sung as remembrance of the scriptural events depicted there. The prayers or devotions help believers relate the experiences Christ endured at that station to their life as a modern-day believer.
As background, I have not practiced Catholicism for 35 years. I was raised Roman Catholic, baptized, confirmed and fully indoctrinated through sixteen years of Catholic education, graduating from Madonna University, no less. Therefore, my faith was rooted and grounded by Catholic priests and sisters, to whom I am deeply grateful.
Brief History of the Stations
The stations of the cross originated as a way to reproduce Jesus’s pilgrimage in Jerusalem. Using art and sculpture to communicate, these three dimensional sculptures or “stations” (a word penned by English mid-15th century pilgrim, William Wey) describe Christ’s halting-places in the Via Sacra at Jerusalem.
In 1686, Pope Innocent XI granted the Franciscans the right to erect stations within their churches. Then in 1857, the bishops of England were allowed to erect the stations by themselves, without the intervention of a Franciscan priest, and in 1862 this right was extended to bishops throughout the church.
This more than 300 year old tradition helps many modern Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Anglican Catholics connect with God through the liturgy and the priest during the Lenten season.
A Cross or a Crucifix?
I observed with curiosity the black draped crucifix and processional cross, then remembered this is how Catholics honor His death. Funny how things you thought forgotten return to mind. The dark shroud will be removed when Jesus’s resurrection is celebrated Easter Sunday morn.
The Crucifix, a cross with the Body of Christ impaled upon, is an ancient symbol used within the Catholic Church. Protestants opt for a simple, empty cross. Why the difference?
So as to call to mind the Passion of the Lord. These denominations want to keep Jesus’s death central in the minds of the faithful.
Michelangelo’s Crucifix in the Basilica of the Holy Spirit, in Florence, Italy is a beautiful example of art that transports one to another place and time.
My intent herein is not to debate or dishonor the traditions of fellow Christians, rather to share a personal takeaway from my Good Friday experience within a Catholic tradition.
21st Century Faith Beyond the Cross
Our faith as Christians, regardless of denomination, has always been and will be – about the finished work of the cross at Calvary. This is one of our central, shared core beliefs. Another is that Jesus rose from the dead and is presently alive, seated at the right hand of His Father in heaven.
My personal take-away from this experience was the unity of faith that Christian believers share in the Lenten season, regardless of denomination. The stations reminded me that my worth and identity arise from the merits of my Savior’s redemption and not in my inherent goodness (grace versus works). I felt somewhat stifled by the rigidity of the liturgy, one reason I no longer practice Catholicism. By embracing Charismatic Christianity, I find full expression for my passion and insatiable quest for knowledge of the Divine. The scriptures read were life giving, by their nature.
I recalled how I learned I did not need a priest to lead me into the presence of the Holy, or to be my intermediary. Jesus is my intermediary. The Bible tells me that I am a priest in 1 Peter 2:5,9. A living stone. A royal priesthood.
Protestantism empowers me with the knowledge that Christ lives within my heart through the indwelling Holy Spirit. I am a carrier of His Presence, full of His Word, thus my faith is active and alive. I am one of many 21st century disciples, hungry seekers, devoted worshippers, waiting posse.
Respectfully, no offense intended, but as beautiful, poignant and ancient these stations, they do not help me feel God’s Presence any nearer by performing this religious ritual.
My Jesus is no longer affixed to a crucifix. My cross is empty. For that I am eternally grateful. As the priest said today, may we trust in the power of the risen Christ who lives forever! Maybe God just wanted me to know that spending time with Him … where-ever … was all He wants. Prayer, stillness, meditating on Him, singing to Him, reading His Word. Just being together in relationship is all He wants of us. It’s what He died for.
Good Friday 2017 update: Brian Hardin’s Daily Audio Bible readings and narration today focused my thoughts where they should be this day: on the meaning of the Cross. In 30 minutes where ever you are, you can encounter Jesus! The link above takes you to 4/14/2017.