Stations of the Cross


I joke about death marches. These days they are mainly the slogs between one school holiday break and the next. Just the wastelands of early rising and chauffeuring the youngest from one place she has to be to another place she wants to be.

But the first real death marches I participated in took place during the Lenten seasons of my youth when I was finally deemed old enough to participate in the Stations of the Cross.

In every Catholic Church I have ever been in, the journey Christ made to his crucifixion is depicted in pictures or sculpture along the outer walls of the church. There are 12, and Lent is the only time I can recall that they are referenced as anything other than decor.

As a little kid, I found them quite fascinating. Aside from the fact that they were a lovely distraction from the deadly dull mass, they also appeared to tell a complete story, which was in contrast to the painted scenes of angels and saints that adorned the ceilings.

I rather likde biblical stories when I was young. I had a children’s bible that I read from cover to cover, so I had a vague idea of the story on the church walls and was certain that whatever ceremony that went along with them had to be better than rest of Easter, which was dreary and dreadful by turns.

I knew Holy Week by heart and loathed every minute of it from the longest mass of the year on Palm Sunday, which even the crisp green palm fronds couldn’t make better, to through to the blessed relief of Easter Sunday, marking the return of 30 minute services.

Yes. 30 minutes. The pastor and associate of my childhood parish were old school and could rattle off a mass that you could set your watch by. And they were slow. I had an great-uncle who could say a mass in 20 minutes. My dad also thought it had something to do with Father John having been in North Africa during WWII. I’ve always suspected it was because the old goat was too lazy to write a sermon longer than a paragraph.

When I was in grades one and two, Lent was not the arduous, guilt and penance-fest that it would become. I think the sisters may have even indulged the bunny aspect of it a bit. So there were no stations of the cross for us though we were made to sit through the numerous all school masses, and in grade two, when we were instructed in confession and prepped for our first communions, I vaguely recall sitting in the pews as Father Schmidt explained the stations to us. I was sure walking them had to be more interesting.

Imagine my disappointment then when in grade three, I was introduced to the mystery of a ritualized tale that would torture the rest of my school days for 40 days every spring.

Sr. Theresa, a wizened little thing with fingernails like talons, spent a week getting us ready for our first trip around the outer ring of the pews following Jesus’s death march.

We learned each station – I was and still am fond of Veronica wiping Jesus’s face because I like to imagine a brave girl defying the Roman guards to do it – and we created a little prayer-book with a page for each station. We wrote our own prayers and drew lovely pictures of torture and death to go along with them.

I have to admit that I was quite excited the first time.

The excitement was over by the fourth station and the realization that this was an awful lot of standing, praying and then walking tiny distances to stand some more and pray some more.

And we did this every week of Lent.

The next Lent, Sister Annette had us trudging those same steps every damn day and for extra measure, she made our pastor lead us around as a disgruntled, fidgety group at least twice (though in my memory it seems like it happened more often than that). I know she forced him too because Father Powers loathed us children. He never willingly stepped foot in the school, and I have vivid memories of him nearly choking us with those damned candles on whatever the hell saints day when they would bless our necks for some inexplicable reason.

Once I was deemed old enough to endure the stations, my father decided that I should attend Good Friday stations.

When I was small, my mother never took us to the Good Friday service and I don’t blame her. Four children with barely five years separating the oldest – me – from the youngest, no one should have to do that. Dad was seldom off work but when he did manage it – we went to the stations – and I was grateful that this didn’t occur too many years in a row. Because it literally took the better part of an entire afternoon. I am pretty sure Jesus dragged that cross faster than the stations took.

As it was,even when we escaped Good Friday, we’d already been to mass on Thursday evening – where we were forced again to read the Passion that we’d just read the Sunday before.

And good god, I hate the fucking Passion.

All the good speaking parts went to the priests and lectors with the rest of us left with voicing the idiot mobs screaming “Crucify him!” and “We want Barabas!”

By the time I hit junior high, I’d had enough, and I refused to do anything but stand and kneel.

My father was not understanding when I explained to him that I would not have yelled either of those things, had I been there, but he couldn’t make me read aloud with the crowd, so he settled for making sure I was following along (generally, I read ahead).

Good Friday, in addition to the stations if I was unlucky, also meant that for sure Dad would decide to do all five of the sorrowful mysteries when we said the nightly rosary.

Saturday was some half-mass and a holy water ritual that even today I am uncertain of the origins or point, and sometimes, there would be grown-ups, who for reasons that baffled me, were hell-bent on converting to Catholicism, which meant a longer service for the rest of us.

Sunday – there was the Easter Bunny – before a mercifully short Passion-free mass and followed by donuts.

Donuts continue to be my favorite Sunday memory of childhood.

Earlier this week, I noted on Twitter that Easter was my least favorite Catholic holiday. Unlike the Protestants (and admittedly I knew but a handful in my youth), Catholics – at least where I grew up – didn’t kick off Lent with pancakes. It was an ashes, guilt and penance-fest. With meatless Fridays, fasting and watchful adults to make sure that you gave something up for the duration.

Lent was a joyless death march where at some point, you would recreate an actual death march.

Easter is the most important holiday of the Catholic calendar. Literally the foundation of the church. And more than anything else, it set me on my path to rejecting the whole implausible thing.

Someone noted that Easter has improved since the dark old days of my youth in yore.

I can’t imagine how, but I will take them at their word and remember what a good friend always reminds me, Easter is just a zombie story, celebrated with pancakes and chocolate eggs and immortalized by a rock opera.


Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglica...

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So, even though I spent fifteen minutes on the phone tonight reassuring my mom that vegetarianism and Easter dinner is not a recipe for disaster, it only just occurred to me that it is Holy Week. I hated Holy Week when I was growing up. It meant going to church on a day that wasn’t Sunday, like protestants do, and masses that were longer than 30 minutes, a practically unheard of thing when I was a child.

 

It started with reading the Passion ensemble style on Palm Sunday. The longest freaking mass of the year, and you spent at least half of it on your feet. No slouching. No leaning. Back straight. Missile open. Attention paid. Not that I was ever paying attention. My favorite place to hide when I was a child was deep inside my head where I had many stories to occupy me when the world around me was too intense, or in the case of mass or school, too pointless.

 

 

In school that week we had prayer services and did the stations of the cross everyday. As often as I have done them, the stations, I still don’t know them by heart. Not like a Hail Mary or the responses during the consecration which come back unbidden and  virtually word for word no matter how many years it has been.

 

Thursday night, we went to mass to watch Father wash feet and to read yet another version of the Passion. There are four gospels you know.

 

Friday. Stations of the Cross. This time in a packed church in the middle of the day. The consecrated host was taken from the altar and the tabernacle draped to indicate Jesus’ death. Fun times.

 

Saturday night. Mass again and since there couldn’t be a consecration, no resurrection yet, you would think it wouldn’t take as long. You’d be wrong.

 

Sunday morning mass, the day of the Resurrection of God’s only son made flesh, was actually the shortest mass of the week. It was like a reward for having made it through Holy Week boot camp. The gospel was about Mary Magdalene finding the tomb empty and running to fetch the apostles. It was always interesting to me that Jesus appeared to Mary first. Didn’t that make her important? The answer to that is no. Mary was a woman. My Irish Catholic view of the world told me that women ruled it, but in the Catholic church, we ran and fetched. God only loved us second best and even that was predicated on our shunning birth control in favor of Kennedyesque broods or taking the veil.

 

Easter was crammed full of rituals I detested. Lent with its fasting and meaningless deprivation. Confession. The sisters made us go once a week during Lent. We were children. At some point over the course of forty days, we had to start making up sins. And of course, there were the endless hours of rosary my dad would insist we recite every night after the dishes were done. Praying as a family was something the church encouraged although I didn’t notice it making my family a happier group of people.

 

The last Easter Sunday mass I attended was with Will the spring before we got married. We had to sit in the overflow because everyone who was ever even nominally Catholic goes to mass on Easter Sunday. I remember he thought we spent an awful lot of time on our feet and knees, and why were there seats if we weren’t going to use them? Sometimes I wonder if I am making a mistake by not raising my daughter in the faith. It certainly shaped who I am in some ways.

Maybe that is why.