The “stations” here are not carvings like the pictures I saw online. All but the last one, which is a life-size crucifix, is a sheet of paper with illustrations and words, laminated and taped on the walls at various intervals. The course starts on one side of the altar and takes us around the perimeter of the sanctuary until we end up on the other side of the altar. When I join the group members, they are standing at the first station: Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane. The minister reads a short paragraph about the brief respite that Jesus and three of his disciples take as they are walking into Jerusalem.
In the garden, Jesus is suddenly overcome with grief, realizing he will die soon. Until this moment, he had been stoic about it. Now he tells his companions, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch.” He asks them to stay with him while he prays for one hour. When he looks up, his friends have fallen asleep and, for the first time, Jesus seems deeply hurt. In this personal moment, he expresses his disappoint to his friends. “Sleepest thou?” he says to them, “couldest not thou watch one hour?” The minister finishes reading and our little group stands quietly, letting the words sink in. I think about the complexities in this simple event: Jesus wanting companionship as he struggles to accept his fate, and his friends, despite all good intentions, encountering their own human frailties.
Over the next several stations Jesus is arrested, betrayed, judged, and condemned. It occurs to me as we’re going through these steps that the real crime here—the reason Jesus faced such a harsh consequence—were the beliefs others had about him. Anyone can claim to be divine and simply be dismissed as a lunatic. What set Jesus apart—what made him a threat in the eyes of the leaders of his day—were not the claims he may or may not have made, but what existed in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he touched.
My little group is now facing the grim descent. I offer my companions a wan smile. If I were alone, I would race through these last stations and make a beeline for the exit, but I’m forced to slow my pace to that of the group’s. I recall a statement made by a preacher at an Episcopal church I visited a few weeks back who talked about how she understood why some people didn’t want to focus on Jesus’ death. She said, “But if you’re willing to look directly at it, you’ll find it creates spaciousness in your heart.” What a strange and mysterious thing to say, I thought. What did she mean by it?
Then, like a motley crew on a turbulent sea, we forge ahead: Jesus is scourged, crowned with thorns, forced to carry his own crucifix, and, finally, is crucified. From the other side of death, Jesus says, “Be not afraid.” It is the same message he has offered on many occasions over the course of his ministry. Here he offers it one last time. I feel a knot of anxiety in my belly. Is this what religion is about: soothing the fear? Ultimately, aren’t we all in need comfort?
The last station is a huge wooden cross, made from two pieces of tree trunk, placed in the middle of the altar. The accompanying printout, taped to the cross, explains that this represents the part of the story in which Jesus is laid in his tomb, which is why the cross is draped in a black sash. I stand directly in front of this make-believe crucifix. “I am the door,” Jesus said. I smiled when I read that statement in the Bible because it seemed like funny thing to say. The door to what? The cross is about the size of a doorway. I close my eyes and imagine the cross as something I can open. What’s on the other side? Is it as expansive as the Episcopalian preacher suggested? I picture my hand on a knob as I twist and push.