Earlier this week, I joined a small group of fellow parishioners in praying the Stations of the Cross, a favorite Lenten devotion. Afterwards, a friend who had been on hand offered me a ride home, despite my protests that, after several hours at my laptop, I needed whatever exercise could by gained by the ten-minute walk from the pew to my front porch.
“Get in the car,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Although it didn’t help my metabolism, the short drive gave us a chance to confide to each other our fears over the direction in which our culture, our country and, quite honestly, the world itself were all headed.
She and I were grateful that daily life was returning to a halting normalcy as the pandemic was slowly — albeit unevenly — coming under control. We reassured ourselves that the arc of human history had been bent by crises of equal and indeed far greater magnitude than the ones besetting the present age. And we weren’t looking to parse the headlines into biblical prophecies.
But we still had a nagging need to know where the divine clock stood, a centuries-old question posed by psalmist and short-tempered child alike: “How long, O Lord?” — which can be translated into toddler dialect as “are we there yet?”
While it may seem petulant, the query is generally born of great pain. Anyone who has languished in grief or illness, endured months of unemployment, battled addiction, struggled with depression or wrestled with other lingering woes can only wonder if the pain has an end — and, like Job, pleads with God for release: “Remember that my life is like the wind; my eye will not see happiness again” (Jb 7:7).
But as my friend and I commiserated, we began to realize that perhaps we had left something behind at church that evening: the actual message of the Stations.
Christ’s agonizing journey to Calvary was, in one sense, an apparent study in the utter depravity of human nature — a lesson to which the cynic could smugly point as proof of mankind’s inferior, irredeemable condition. We have sanitized the unconscionable practice of capital punishment, but the Romans had no such pretensions, and the public spectacle of crucifixion was very much by design. The goal was to utterly debase and destroy the victim, and to thoroughly demoralize witnesses lest they seek to rebel against the empire.
For Jesus, the humiliation was doubled: many of his own people, incited by some of their leaders, had called for his death, and may well have traded their palms of “hosanna!” for blows of hatred as the Lord labored to reach Calvary. Scripture and tradition record only a few acts of kindness en route to Golgotha: a woman offered her veil, others their tears; a laborer grudgingly shouldered the crossbeam for several steps; a mother gazed in love and sorrow beyond all telling.
Yet tragic and futile as they may have seemed at the time, Christ’s steps to the cross perfectly traced the will of the Father. And well before his passion, Jesus had shared with his disciples a detailed map to eternal life: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24; cf. Mk 8:34, Lk 14:27).
Of course, it’s entirely possible to march behind a leader who is misguided or lost, but the Greek word used in Matthew’s Gospel passage reassures us that Jesus knows exactly where he is headed. Akoloutheitō, “to follow,” derives from another Greek word, keleuthos, meaning “road” or “way,” and although this mysterious path leads through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23:4), it is not aimless, but instead wends to “the mountain of the Lord of hosts” where the Lord “will destroy death forever” and “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Is 25:6-8).
Anxious and frustrated, my friend and I were sorely tempted to speculate on the distance to the Second Coming, and to suggest that the Lord might want to consider stepping on the gas pedal. But Jesus rebukes such thoughts, reminding his disciples that “it is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has established by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Instead of asking to know our estimated time of cosmic arrival, the Lord asks us to trust his navigation, through which the Spirit will send us as “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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