Monday, March 19, 2012

The Smorgasbord Stations of the Cross

Oy, I’m so very, very tired of these things. An elderly relative recently complained that in his parish they had to pray some hippy-dippy environmentalist Peace ‘n Justice™ Stations of the Cross. These have been around forever—well, since the late 60’s, but according to the Followers of the Spirit of Vatican II, that is when the Church really began.

More and more parishes are turning back to the many beautiful traditional versions of the Stations of the Cross. You know, the ones that meditate upon (as crazy as it sounds) the actual Passion of Jesus Christ, that guy who died on the cross to redeem all of creation. And not so that 2000 years on, we could bow down and worship trees.

But you still see the odd abomination around: The Wimmin’s Way of the Cross; The Wounded Earth Stations of the Cross; The Dustbowl Farmers’ Stations of the Cross; The Self-absorbed Teenagers’ Stations of the Cross (The 10th Station: Jesus is stripped of his garments: we pray for those who feel ostracized because they can’t afford the designer clothing that everyone else is wearing); The Animal Rights Activists’ Stations of the Cross; The Morbidly Obese Dissenting Nuns Stations of the Cross. (Some of the preceding are real and some are made up, but the sad part is, you probably can’t tell).

I still remember suffering through my first such Way of the Cross. I was so irked that (of course) I had to write about it to purge myself. It was printed in the March, 1999, issue of Catholic Insight. How I wish such columns were out of date.

 Of Nard and Solidarity

Breaking the jar, she began to pour the perfume on his head. Some were saying to themselves indignantly: "What is the point of this extravagant waste of perfume? It could have been sold and the money given to the poor" (Mark, 14:3- 5).

It was Sunday in mid-Lent, and I was visiting a neighbouring parish where it was the custom to pray the Way of the Cross before mass. We had no booklets, and as we began, it was obvious that the "presiders" were using one of the many newer versions of the Stations of the Cross. As I later found out, it was the "Solidarity" Way of the Cross developed by the CCODP, 1996. If you are unfamiliar with this version, here is a sampling:

(Station #1: The last supper)
Where is Jesus today? With all those who are out of work because of depleted fish stocks, forests, mines and agricultural lands.

O God of our hungers, encourage the people who work to improve their food supply in Peru by building communal grain bins, irrigation canals, and reservoirs. We pray in Jesus' name.


(Station #5: Jesus meets his mother)
God of our mothers, be with Mary Mutangana and groups of women in rural Zaire that work to increase women's participation in community decision-making through income-generating projects and literacy programs. We pray in Jesus' name. AMEN.

(Station #6: Simon helps Jesus)
God of consolation, be with the 12,000 workers at Indonesian plants producing shoes for NIKE, and encourage those of us who wear NIKE shoes to work for justice for our sisters and brothers. AMEN.

I thought to myself, Informative as this may be, poetry it is not. I tried to pray reverently and sincerely, but at heart I felt disturbed; something was lacking. Immediately it struck me: this prayer was supposed to commemorate our Savior's Via Dolorosa, yet there was no mention whatsoever of the actual sufferings that Jesus underwent for our salvation.

As I left Mass that morning, I wondered why the authors of these Stations deemed it unnecessary to include any description of Jesus' physical and mental anguish. Was it because Catholics are so familiar with the story of Christ's passion that it's become dull routine? Or have we come to believe that our Lord's sufferings don't have any "relevance" unless we first gain an appreciation for the suffering of others? I believe the opposite is true: unless first I enter by faith into the agony of the cross, the sufferings of my fellow man will have relatively little effect on a self-centered sinner like me.

The Solidarity Way of the Cross seeks, laudably enough, to raise my awareness of injustice so that I may act upon it. Granted, education is necessary for social change, but does knowledge alone inspire compassion? Suffering is difficult--so much so that at times I am reluctant to carry my own cross, let alone the cross of someone I will never meet. Society tells me to ease my own pain, even at the expense of others. Why then, would I want to alleviate injustice and suffering in the lives of others?

For Christians, the answer is simple enough: we must love one another because our Master told us to. Yet an intellectual or vaguely philanthropic assent to this command is not enough. As St. Paul reminds us, we may give up our very bodies to be burned, but we gain nothing if we are without love. I must have a passionate love for the cross--and the One who died upon it for my sins--to be able to love my brother enough to share his burden. Only the cross enables us to see suffering in its proper perspective; only Christ gives us the gift of genuine compassion, and the sustaining grace to pour out our lives, without recompense, in the pursuit of justice.

The two great commandments are: first, to love God, and second, to love my neighbour. When we reverse this order, we fulfil neither. "Wrong as it is to restrict love exclusively to God and to deny real love to one's neighbour, it is still much worse to exclude direct love of God," writes Dietrich von Hildebrand (Trojan Horse in the City of God). He continues: "The moment we believe that love of neighbour is the only way to love God, we replace charity in all its glorious and sublime holiness with a mere humanitarian love of neighbour, which in reality can scarcely be called love, but only a pale benevolence." Few people today are willing to open their wallets (let alone die) for the sake of "pale benevolence".

True love of Christ will always lead to love of neighbour. If, on the other hand, my heart is hardened, and my faith does not go beyond acts of empty piety, then education and awareness will not make any difference, either to me or to “freedom fighters in East Timor”. A raised consciousness is useless without a redeemed conscience.

If I do not frequently remind myself of how horribly Jesus suffered in order to obtain my salvation, I will not see the redemptive value of suffering, nor will I be inclined to share my neighbour's burden. No, I will say, with a yawn, "Keep warm, fare well"--or in this case, "God, be with clothing and plastics workers in Hong Kong whose jobs may be moved to China". Then I will walk out of church in my NIKE shoes, sit down on my Levis-clad backside in a restaurant (staffed with people forced to work on Sunday), and order an underpaid visible minority waitress to bring me Colombian coffee and banana cream pie, with no further thought of “Rosa Martinez, who makes 33 cents an hour sewing clothing for U.S. markets.”

I do not mean to be glib: social action concerns me. I am, therefore, concerned with the liturgical action which must inspire it. As liturgy is the action of the people of God within the four walls of the church, social justice is the action of the Church in the world. A personal knowledge of, and love for Jesus will inspire us to more effective social action, yet how are we to know Christ and enter into his passion if his name and atoning sacrifice are purged from the liturgy? When the Stations of the Cross (or any other liturgical action, including Mass) push Jesus to the background in favour of 'the community', local or global, we lose sight of who we are, why we are here, and where we are going.

We frequently see the sacrificial nature of the Mass downplayed in favour of the "community meal model." At best, a communal meal will give you sixty minutes or so of "warm fuzzies"—at worst, indigestion. On the other hand, reverently recalling Jesus' sacrificial death and his glorious resurrection—all for you and your equally unworthy neighbour—will make  more inclined to love your enemy and do good to those who hate you.

Do the traditional Stations of the Cross dwell too much on Christ's agonies while failing to make the connection to the sufferings of our brothers and sisters all around us? I cannot presume to speak for the authors of the Solidarity stations, but I wonder if some liturgical innovators see the older Stations as a type of devotional nard: a lot of expensive, perfumed, pious sympathy wasted on Jesus (who, being God, doesn't need anything from us), whereas our energies would be better spent "breaking the thongs of the yoke." 

So instead of talking redundantly about the details of Christ's passion, we'll just mention him at the beginning of each station, thank him briefly for dying for us, then get on to the business at hand: justice for NIKE plant workers, the volunteers of Bush Radio in South Africa, and "all those who work long hours at jobs which are boring or dangerous."

I think there are many more appropriate forums to disseminate this type of information. An appeal after the Mass or homily is one thing: substituting the text of the liturgy itself is quite another. Certainly we must always keep the poor in our prayers, but is our worship enriched by the inclusion of mini-documentaries?

I am growing weary of hymns, prayers, and worship services that offer little food for the soul, resembling instead news reports or community love-ins. We've learned that school-children can't work on an empty stomach—why  aren't our liturgists applying this knowledge in church? Jesus said to Peter, "Feed my sheep." He did not say "Empower the sheep to organize a union and raise the public's consciousness about their oppression by the wolf."

Once well-fed, we sheep will be able to work for the good of the whole flock, but first and foremost, we just need to be fed. Nothing will fill us but the Living Bread, in the mystery of his incarnation, passion and resurrection. Give us Jesus—nard and all—and his Holy Spirit will do the rest in any heart that is open to his word. 

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