Changing Stations

What’s wrong with tweaking the Good Friday tradition to make room for child mortality, the environment, and other global problems?

Also in Slate: Larry Hurtado investigated how early Christians wrestled with the idea of resurrection, and James Martin discovered why Easter never became as commercialized as that “Santa” holiday.

Stations of the Cross: Not just for the religious anymore

Lent is a sober season, and no Christian ritual associated with the 40-day run-up to Easter is more sobering than the Stations of the Cross. The traditional devotion, often performed on Good Friday, is a sequence of prayers and meditations that recall events on Jesus’ path to crucifixion and burial. The scenes of Jesus’ final tribulations are heavy with suffering, betrayal, and torture, but they also communicate the central Christian paradox of new life through death. “By your holy cross, you have redeemed the world,” worshippers repeat as the service progresses from station to station.

This year in time for Lent, Episcopal Relief and Development, the relief agency of the Episcopal Church, began offering a variation on the Stations of the Cross called the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals. It features eight stations, one for each of the global priorities identified by the United Nations in 2000, from eradicating poverty to promoting gender equality. Where each of the 14 stations of the traditional Stations of the Cross represents an event leading up to Jesus’ death—”Jesus is condemned to death” and “Jesus falls the first time,” for example—the alternative version, promoted by Episcopal Relief and Development, shifts the focus to righting global problems. At Station 8, “Create a Global Partnership for Development,” participants are reminded that a “fair trading system, increased international aid, and debt relief for developing countries will help us realize” the U.N. goals. An optional activity at Station 7, “Ensure Environmental Sustainability,” asks that “pilgrims calculate their carbon footprint and come up with three strategies to reduce it.”

When word of the new version spread online, the response from some liturgical traditionalists was harsh. “Raw idolatry,” one commenter wrote on the Anglican blog Stand Firm. “Is there any way this is not mortal sin?” asked another at the conservative discussion site Free Republic. “It runs the risk of replacing Christ with the church, and the activity of Christ with the activity of the church,” Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, was quoted as saying in a story on the Web site of the magazine Christianity Today. For these critics, the problem with the alternative set of stations is that it doesn’t talk about the Passion. Instead of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, they say, the Millennium Development Goals liturgy focuses on global activism.

No doubt, the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals depart from old-school worship traditions in some obvious ways. (A suggested activity for Station 4, on reducing child mortality, calls for participants to shade in drawings of children’s faces, coloring-book-style.) But what the new liturgy’s critics mostly failed to note was that the Stations of the Cross devotion has long been a changeable ritual. The number and nature of the stations has varied over time and across faith traditions. The devotion is usually associated with Catholicism, but some liturgically oriented Protestant congregations practice it, too, and the Anglican Book of Occasional Services features a Stations of the Cross liturgy. The menu of variations on the basic stations ritual is remarkably broad: There are children’s stations, online stations, and stations performed on city streets with worshippers dressed as Jesus and Roman soldiers.

The custom grew out of pilgrimages early Christians made to the Holy Land to retrace Jesus’ path to Calvary. During the 15th century, to accommodate those who could not travel to Jerusalem, European artists began creating small shrines depicting the scenes of Jesus’ Passion and placing them along local procession routes so that pilgrims could stop and pray at each one. The stations didn’t move inside churches until the end of the 17th century, and it was only in 1731 that Pope Clement XII set the number of stations at 14. Before then, the number of events represented by stations varied widely, from as few as seven or eight to as many as 31. Even after the number of stations was settled on officially, some worshippers kept a 15th station for Jesus’ resurrection. In 1991, Pope John Paul II made his own revision, introducing an alternative version that eliminates the events not mentioned in Gospel accounts (Jesus’ falls and Veronica’s intervention with her veil, for example) and replaces them with others based on Scripture.

The idea of tying the stations to social activism isn’t even all that novel. Via Crucis re-enactments, like the one by Catholics in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood where costumed churchgoers play the roles of Jesus and other figures in the Passion, include stops that call attention to social problems or injustices. One year, the Chicago procession stopped in front of a neighborhood tortilleria to pray for employees working in unsanitary conditions. Online, you can find homegrown Stations of the Cross devotions that stop to pray at neighborhood sites like parks or at the scenes of fatal car accidents.

But by taking Jesus’ Passion out of play altogether, the Millennium Development Goals liturgy is a greater departure than any of these other alternative versions. So, what’s the point of stations without the cross?

The people at Episcopal Relief and Development who distributed the new liturgy insist that their alternative version was intended to complement, not replace, the traditional stations. They say the service would not be a good choice for Good Friday. And, they add, their cause is a good one: Meeting the Millennium Development Goals is an institutional priority of the Episcopal Church.

Certainly some of the criticism of the liturgy can be written off as more of the usual sniping by liturgical traditionalists at social activists, part of the ongoing division among Anglicans. And—also as usual—there was plenty of more-pious-than-thou posturing on display. One of the perils of defending old-style “smells and bells” worship is that you may find yourself on the same team with the kind of blog posters who take it upon themselves to accuse others of mortal sin.

But even allowing for these stipulations and noting the worthiness of the Millennium Development Goals themselves, the liturgy strikes a disconcerting note.

Part of the problem is the suggested activities, some of which smack of grade-school art assignments. (Finger paints?) Then there’s the language, which too often slides into the bland agreeability of the corporate mission statement. (“Clean water, sanitation, and development can work together to save lives and create productive, thriving societies and safeguard our planet.”)

The value of liturgy lies in its ability to unite people around powerful ritual moments. But the Stations of the Millennium Development Goals appropriate the form of the old-school Stations of the Cross service without retaining the sense of sacred mystery that makes it so powerful. That’s no sin—but it is a bit of a shame.