I have had the good fortune to travel extensively. In my travels to Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Canada and throughout the United States, I have developed a love for old churches. I am fascinated by the architectural design and in many cases how the design reflects the culture and, in large part, the religion of the church. Throughout Europe churches were built to the ‘Glory of God” and reflected the very best in architecture. Designs were magnificent and in most cases there is not an absence of exquisite decor nor beauty. The European flair followed many of the Pilgrims to America and you can see much of the same church beauty throughout New England. The Anglican church is prominent in Canada, and their churches have tall belfries and gables producing purity in their appearance. In small town America usually the first building completed was the church, and it stood in the middle of town with a steeple representing the tallest structure in town.
Recently June and I, on one of our “meandering mornings,” visited Bell Buckle, Tennessee. While walking through town, we came to an old abandoned church which happened to be the oldest structure in town. It had beautiful stain-glass windows that you see in so many of these old churches. Surprisingly, the door was open so we cautiously went inside and stood in silence and disbelief. The old pews were in place but the roof leaked and birds had made it their home. One of the stain-glass windows was on the brink of falling completely in and hymn books and other materials were scattered about the floor, pews and elsewhere. We were heartbroken at the sight before us and wanted to find out why this beautiful building had been deserted and left to rot. Interestingly, our walk through town brought us to the historian of the town who informed us the congregation of this church felt this old structure had ‘served its purpose’ and had abandoned it and were now meeting in a newer structure next door. If I could have found the letters for the old marquee in front of this once beautiful structure, I would have placed “and Jesus wept” on it.
Within these beautiful churches you will see architectural designs intended to bring attention to certain scripture or religious practices. It was upon visiting a Catholic Church I first became familiar with the Stations of the Cross. The first time I walked the Stations it had a profound impact upon me. My personal experience was followed shortly thereafter when I accompanied a group of Seventh Graders during a church activity who were also learning about the Stations.
This church activity came about as a result of questions being asked of the Bible teacher concerning the Stations of the Cross of which they had heard from some of their Catholic friends. Strangely enough, the Bible teacher could not answer the questions the students were asking and had to visit a local Basilica at St. Mary’s church to observe and study before he could adequately respond to the students. What happened next was beautiful. The Bible teacher decided to arrange the Stations inside the gymnasium and invited his students to participate. He laminated the name of each Station and posted the name surrounded by six small candles . Next he invited the students to come that night and walk the Stations. They could take as much time as they wanted. He only asked they respect those around them as they walked.
As might be expected with early teens, there was some giggling, and some of the students almost jogged around the circuit. But for the majority the response was overwhelming. They loved it! Many of these 12 and 13- year-olds who had been hearing about Jesus for years in Sunday school felt like they really experienced His suffering for the first time. Several of them reported they finally understood what Jesus went through.
Since the early days of the Church, Christians have traveled to Jerusalem to retrace the path Jesus took as he carried His cross from Pilate’s house to Golgotha. According to tradition, this path has become known as the ‘Via Dolorosa’ (Way of Sorrow).
Upon my arrival at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, the announcement was given at the beginning of Holy Week (Easter), that on Friday faculty and students could observe or walk the Stations of the Cross along University Avenue.
Several participants were chosen to play the part of the actual people including someone assigned the role of Christ carrying a cross. At each Station along the way, scripture was read corresponding to the Biblical account. It is always a solemn occasion. Each year people who participate and the spectators who line the street speak of what a meaningful and spiritually- moving event this is.
I have a challenge for you. As Lent leads us into Easter, locate a church that has the Stations. Most Catholic churches do. Monasteries have them outdoors along a prayer path. Some churches have “Living Stations of the Cross” during Holy Week. If neither of these is available, create your own by going “on line” and gather more information so that you can develop a personal approach to the “Via Dolorosa.” You will be glad you did.