March 27, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

Following Jesus on the Via Dolorosa, the only way to Easter

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinFor the past five weeks, I have been reflecting on the season of Lent using images from my recent trip to the Holy Land and the 2015 Lenten message of Pope Francis.

One of the great blessings of the pilgrimage that 51 of us made to the Holy Land last month was the opportunity to pray the Stations of the Cross. This traditional Lenten devotion took on a special meaning for me there for two reasons.

First, we were able to pray at the 14 stations that are located on the Via Dolorosa in the section of Jerusalem known as the Old City. Following these stations allowed us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, literally, as he carried his cross from the place where he was condemned by Pilate (first station) to the hill on which he was crucified (12th station) and then laid to rest in the tomb (14th station).

The second reason that this was a special moment for me was because the prayers we said that day were composed by St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of my religious order, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). The heartfelt prayers of St. Alphonsus, combined with the fact that we were following the Lord’s via dolorosa (his way of sorrow), had a very powerful effect on me and, I believe, my fellow pilgrims.

The streets of the Old City that make up the Via Dolorosa contain hundreds of shops, cafes and other places of business. As we processed through these streets singing (“Jesus, remember me …”) and praying  (“We praise you, O Lord, and we bless you …”), we were surrounded by “business as usual.”

Occasionally, a shopkeeper would attempt to sell us something. Once or twice, we were scolded—even spit at—for reasons we can only guess.

Jesus received similar treatment (only much, much worse) as he carried his cross through the narrow streets and outskirts of Jerusalem on his way to the Skull Place (Golgotha).

The prayers of St. Alphonsus Liguori made the experience of Christ’s crucifixion very personal for us. “It was not Pilate, no, it was my sins that condemned you to die,” we prayed. And, “I kiss the stone that enclosed you. But you rose again on the third day. I beseech you by your resurrection, make me rise gloriously with you on the last day, to be always united with you in heaven to praise you and love you forever.”

The Stations of the Cross are a particularly powerful Lenten devotion because they make it possible for us to participate in the experience of the Lord’s passion and death in a personal way. This is the road (the only one!) that leads to Easter. If our observance of Lent brings us closer to the experience of Christ’s suffering—undertaken for our sake, and for all our sisters and brothers everywhere—then we can be confident that the joy of Easter will also be ours.

Of course, as Pope Francis admonishes us in his Lenten message this year, closeness to Jesus cannot live in our hearts unless we first open them to God and to all of humanity, especially the poor and vulnerable members of our society. The Stations of the Cross are not a purely private devotion; they are intended to help us open our eyes, our hands and our hearts, not close them, to the great suffering that Jesus freely accepted as an expiation for the sins of all and as a means of liberating all humanity from the oppression of sin and death.

“Grant that I may love you always,” we prayed at each station, “and then do with me what you will.” St. Alphonsus’ words summarize powerfully the experience of Jesus and the vocation of his disciples: We are called to love selflessly, and to submit to the will of God come what may. 

As we prepare for the Easter Triduum and the season of joy that follows it, let’s open our hearts to the suffering of those around us. Let’s pray that the passion and death of our Lord will guide us safely through our own sorrows to the ecstasy of Easter joy. †

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