The Royal Road To Calvary
Dear Apostle of the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
Holy Mother the Church has entered into Her solemn Season of Lent. Catholics throughout the world approach the Altar on Ash Wednesday to hear a grave warning: “Remember man, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” Turn away from sin! Be faithful to the Gospel! The Lenten challenge, that two fold call to conversion which we heard on Ash Wednesday, is the challenge of a lifetime. It is a challenge that we have to take very seriously. Lent is a serious season. It is a time for serious reflection and serious living because, in the season of Lent, there are choices that must be made and these choices often times affect our whole life. So many of us begin Lent with tremendous enthusiasm, hope and expectation. But, all too often, enthusiasms are dampened and those expectations are shattered because we come to realize that our goals for Lent are not rooted in God but, rather, they are rooted in ourselves. Our Holy Gospel today is a wonderful reminder to us of why we fail so often with our Lenten penance and our Lenten obligations. Our Lord says so very clearly:
“Whoever wishes to come after Me, must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Me.”
Those three steps are the necessary steps that must be taken in order for us to experience real transformation. The first step is probably the hardest, although none of them is easy and none of them is simple. So many people in our modern world, today, stumble and fall at the first step of conversion: If you would follow after Me, you must deny yourself. The modern mind rebels at the idea of self-denial. All too often, we trivialize our self-denial, we pick a symbol or caricature of our self-denial and we tell ourselves: ‘Oh, I am going to deny myself the consolation of a coke or coffee. I am going to deny myself the consolation of chocolate. I am going to deny myself to the pleasure of an extra hour in bed,’ and we believe that these largely symbolic sacrifices represent a true denial to ourselves. But, if we look very closely at the wording of Our Lord’s challenge, we come to understand that Our Lord is not so much interested in our denial of things. What He says is: ‘If you would follow after Me, you must deny yourself.” We are not talking about cokes, chocolate or candy here. The first step to conversion, the first step on the road to true disciple- ship, is self-denial. We must learn how to put ourselves aside. How do we do that? It seems almost impossible to the human spirit that we would be able to reach such a point where we no longer have any natural concern for ourselves, no sense of self-pity or self-consolation. We live in such an ego-centric universe that it is hard for us to imagine any other way of living than without that central reference point of our self, our own needs and our own desires. How do we learn to put these aside? It is a painful and difficult process which first begins in denial or the turning away from sin. This is the first and most necessary step in the aesthetic life. That we turn away not only from the death of mortal sin, but we also learn to turn our hearts and minds away from even venial sin.
Most of our consciences are in a state of COMA! This is simply because they have lapsed through a lack of use. In order for the conscience to function, it has to be exercised. The best way for us to exercise our conscience is to perform a daily examination of conscience. Once upon a time, long, long ago, before 1970, women and men in religious life, who were members of various congregations, were urged and required by their holy Rule to stop and examine their lives twice a day. They were to pause and write in their conscience notebooks the results of their examination and list any willful, deliberate or knowing violation of the holy Rule. Now, that might seem like a very childish task, but it actually has a significant purpose. By forcing ourselves to examine our lives with the eyes of faith, we exercise our conscience to such a degree that it becomes more and more tender, sensitive, alive and aware. Over time, then, we gradually learn to see the pattern of our sins. It is only with this degree of self-knowledge that we can begin the difficult task of finally striking at the root and core of our vices. Sadly enough, most of the time, we are merely trimming the hedges. We never root out the weeds, the cause of our sinfulness. This is because we do not take the time to examine our hearts and our lives so that we might understand fully and completely why we do the things that we don’t want to do. Why am I like this? Why do I fly off the handle? Why am I so impatient? Why don’t I have any charity? Why do I gossip incessantly? Why am I not able to control my tongue, my eyes, my ears or my imagination? If we will take time to examine our conscience on a regular basis and be brutally honest with ourselves, we might begin to see and understand the root of our sins. It is only then that we can begin the painful and difficult process of uprooting the causes of our vices. If we are to deny ourselves, first, we must know ourselves. We must deny ourselves the escape of sin! We must learn not to seek consolation from the things of this world. As Our Lady said to Saint Bernadette, ‘I cannot promise to make you happy in this world, only in the next.” Let us remember that our hearts and our hopes must be centered on the world which is to come!
The second step on the path to discipleship is that we must take up our cross daily. Our Lord does include the word, Daily! When Our Lord speaks about taking up our cross, we have to be very careful in our understanding of this. All too often in our spiritual life, we manufacture crosses that are tailor-made for ourselves, for our spirituality and our personalities. We take on penances, mortifications, works, challenges and apostolates that we consider to be crosses. Often times, these are not genuine crosses. How are we to know what crosses Our Lord is asking us to pick up and carry, day by day? The crosses that we can be certain do come from God are the crosses we did not choose. This is very important. If there is a cross in our life that we did not choose and we do not want, we can be almost certain that it comes from the Hand of God or is permitted by God. The shadow of that cross and the weight of that cross is in our life for a reason and a purpose. The crosses that we do not choose or fashion for ourselves are the crosses that we must learn to pick up, carry and even embrace! St. Jean Vianney put it so beautifully: “To run from the cross, is to be crushed by its weight. Only when we embrace the cross, we discover it has no sting.” And, so, Our Lord challenges us to embrace our crosses daily and to carry them.
To follow after Our Lord means literally to follow Him on that terrible and desolate road from Gethsemane to Golgotha. Each one of us, in our life, must follow in the bleeding footsteps of Our Savior, along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows. That is why, in this most holy Season of Lent, the Church urges Her children to meditate in a special way on the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Every Friday, in Lent, throughout the Catholic world, men and women will follow the Stations of the Cross. When you walk into any Catholic Church, you will notice along the walls there are sculptures of the Stations of the Cross. These 14 images call to mind Our Lord’s suffering on His way to Calvary.
Normally, during Lent, we lead the Stations publically; yet, we leave the images up all year round. We don’t take them down and put them up again during the Lenten Season. The Stations of the Cross remain on the walls all during the year because it is very important for us to remember the lessons that they teach are not meant for us just during Lent. Remember, Our Lord said, “You must take up your cross DAILY and follow after Me.” The Stations of the Cross are there on the walls to remind us that everything Our Lord encountered in His horrible journey on Good Friday and everything that He encountered on the road to Calvary, we will encounter. Each one of us, in our own time and in our own way, will live through each one of those Stations. If we are truly following after Our Lord, if we are following in the footsteps of Our Savior and if we are striving to follow the Divine Lamb wherever He goes, each one of us will encounter those moments of sorrow and trial that are ensconced on the walls of our churches. This is why the Church urges us to take those images into our hearts and to meditate on them so that we might learn the lessons they contain, take their wisdom, love and hope, and make it our own. We will need it as we carry our cross and follow in the footsteps of our suffering Savior while making our way through this Valley of Tears. We will need to be strengthened through our remembrance that Our Lord Himself has already passed this way before us and that He is with us still.
The First Station: Jesus is condemned to death. As we stand before the tribunal of Pontius Pilate with Our Lord in His condemnation, we have to remember that He was innocent. He was guilty of no crime and, yet, He had been betrayed by those He loved. He had been abandoned, mocked, ridiculed and, finally, condemned to a criminal’s death. Our Lord in that first Station comes face to face with injustice. The system has let Him down. Roman law has been violated. There is no justice in this world. This is what we must remember. There will be moments when we are betrayed, when the system will let us down, when our friends will abandon us, when we are alone, when we are accused or even convicted of things we did not do and when we are robbed of our good name through being the victim of people’s gossip or slander. We, too, stand with Our Lord condemned in this First Station.
The Second Station: Jesus is made to bear His Cross. The cross was the symbol of slavery. No Roman citizen could be crucified. Only a slave could be crucified and only a slave that had been convicted of a serious capital offence. Crucifixion was reserved not only as a punishment but it was a public torture reserved as a brutalization of the victim. It was the ultimate sign of shame and scandal. This is the death to which our Innocent Lord was condemned. He had to endure the shame of the cross. And yet, He embraced the Cross. There will be times when we have to endure shame, scandal or slander, when we will be exposed to ridicule and we will feel ourselves humiliated. It is precisely, at those moments, we have to embrace the wood of the cross.
The Third Station: Jesus falls the first time. Again and again, on the road to Calvary, Jesus’ strength was not sufficient for the task. He fell under the weight of the cross, weak and wounded in His body from the loss of blood, but also weak and wounded in spirit, desolate and alone, without help. Our Lord knew what it was to fall face down in the dirt with exhaustion and humiliation, to be crushed by the weight of a load too heavy to bear. And, so, when we feel despair or depression, anxiety or fear, when we feel crushed by the weight of the world and when we feel alone and helpless, we know that Our Lord has FIRST been there and that He is with us still TODAY.
The Fourth Station: Jesus meets His Sorrowful Mother. Can you imagine the pain in the Blessed Virgin’s Heart as She encountered Her Son, bruised, bleeding and broken on the Way to Calvary? Her mother’s heart was wrenched in Her helplessness of being unable to alter or change His condition and situation, unable to help, unable to stop this terrible injustice. How She must have died with Him! Her heart was crushed and pierced with sorrow! How many times have we broken our mother’s heart and, at the same time, how often as parents have we not had our own hearts crushed by our children? Jesus and Mary have already been there. And, when these times come to us, we know they are with us still.
The Fifth Station: Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus to carry His Cross. No matter how heavy the cross is, no matter how alone we may feel and no matter how burdened, if we open our eyes in faith and open our hearts in trust, there will always be someone to help us carry our burden. There will be a Simon to help us. Our Lord has promised, ‘I will not leave you orphans. I will not abandon you. Do not be afraid!’ This is why, when we do feel the weight and the burden of the cross, we cannot shrink into ourselves and we cannot nurse our hurt and cut ourselves off from one another and the Church. We cannot refuse the help that is offered to us. We must be on the lookout for Simon.
The Sixth Station: Veronica wipes the Face of Jesus. Veronica, that beautiful, courageous and heroic woman, who stepped forward even in her fear, with compassion and pity in her heart to wipe the blood, the sweat and the dust from the Face of Our Savior, to wipe away the spit and the indifference of the crowd. She took her own veil, the sign of her modesty, from her head and wiped the Face of Christ. Our Lord rewarded her with the blood stained image of His countenance. All of us are called to receive pity and compassion in our sufferings. We are also called to give that compassion and pity to even the most seemingly despised and rejected members of our society.
The Seventh Station: Jesus falls the second time. We will fall more than once. We have to be prepared for failure. We cannot let failure crush us. The most important lesson of the Seventh Station is not that Jesus falls, but that He rises and goes on. And, so must we! We must continue to follow after Him in spite of everything!
The Eighth Station: Jesus speaks to the Women in Jerusalem. Here, the women are weeping and wailing, crying because of His condition. Our Lord rebukes them: “Do not weep for me, but for yourselves and your children.” Why did Our Lord say this? We must learn what warrants tears and what to really grieve over. This is a lesson that takes our whole life to learn. We must learn not to waste our tears. We have to save our tears for a time when they are truly needed. Our Lord tells the women of Jerusalem: Do not weep over Me, there is nothing that tears can accomplish for Me; weep for yourselves and for your children. Weep over your sins and weep over the real tragedy which is the fact that this city, this Nation has rejected its Savior. Of course, Israel and its inhabitants had resisted Christianity and suffered in 70 A.D. when the citizens were destroyed by the Roman armies.
The Ninth Station: Jesus falls the third time, yet again He rises and continues on to the Tenth Station where He is stripped of His garments and stripped of everything: modesty, decency and of His very clothes. His flesh is one gaping wound covered by His outer garment. When His clothes are stripped off His bleeding and torn flesh, the gaping wounds of the scourging are all opened afresh. Bloodied, bruised and beaten, Our Lord is a shameful sight! If we are going to follow Him, we must be prepared to lose everything in this world and to be stripped clean.
The Eleventh Station: Jesus is nailed to the Cross. Being nailed to the Cross means that He is fixed in place! Beyond the awful torture of those railroad spikes being driven into His wrists and into His feet, there is the greater psychological torture of being confined, fixed and positioned without freedom. This is what each of us will face in our lives as well. There will come a point when we no longer have the freedom to choose and we will be nailed to the cross: perhaps to a job, perhaps to a way of life, perhaps by an illness, a sickness, a physical handicap or a mental one; but we will be nailed, we will be fixed in a place or a condition not of our choosing. This is the cross and the suffering that must be embraced as coming from God. It is this which is allowed by Him as a means of our union with His Son.
The Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross. We, too, will one day stop breathing, turn cold and die. The more we keep that reality in mind, the greater use we will make of the time we have been given. Lent is a time for us to live as though we were dying. I tell the faithful on Ash Wednesday that they should imagine as they come to Mass, they have gone to their doctor and he has told them that, in 40 days, they will be dead. Now, what will you do? How will you live in the time that you have left? In those 40 days, what will you do to truly live? If we keep the reality of death daily before our eyes, then we stand a chance with God’s help of living fully and completely the lives we were meant to live.
Finally, the Thirteenth Station: Our Lord’s Body is taken down from the Cross.
The Fourteenth Station: Our Lord is laid in the tomb. This is the path that we must follow if we are going to obey the exhortation of Our Blessed Lord to us that we must follow after Him and daily take up our cross. This is the path that leads to life eternal! We cannot hope to share in the Resurrection, unless we have first embraced the Cross and accepted Crucifixion!!!
Practice the Stations of the Cross often and with fervor. There are great and tremendous blessings that are given to those who pray the Stations of the Cross. We may gain a plenary indulgence each time we make them. Another plenary indulgence may be granted if we fulfill the three necessary conditions required to gain this indulgence: Sacramental Confession, Eucharistic Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father. Additional plenary indulgence if one receives Holy Communion the same day or after making the Stations ten times, one receives within a month. Ten years and ten quarantines for each Station when, for a reasonable cause, one cannot complete the series. Normally, we must move from Station to Station and meditate on the sufferings of Our Lord. This indulgence may be applied to ourselves or our loved ones, living or dead. A plenary indulgence is the highest grace and blessing the Church can bestow outside of the Sacraments.
The Stations of the Cross is a powerful devotion. Brother Estanislao of Bugedo in the early part of the 20th Century received apparitions of Our Lord Who made the following promises to those who devote themselves to the Way of the Cross:
Let us follow Our Lord with love as we make the Stations of the Cross, as we accompany Him with our hearts and unite our sufferings to His. Not only as we make the Stations but also as we live them, day by day!
Benedícat vos Omnípotens Deus: Pater et Fílius, et + Spíritus Sanctus. Amen.
Father Chad Partain