Fourteen

The “Stations of the Cross” are a spiritual tool commonly found in Roman Catholic churches. The Stations themselves are stops on a path that one walks. The path is like a pilgrimage of sorts, telling the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Each Station on the path represents one part of that story, and includes an image that symbolizes that part. There are usually printed prayers or litanies that one is invited to say at each station, or you can just offer your own prayers, or silent meditation. The Stations walk was originally created to offer an alternative to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, because making such a pilgrimage was quite an undertaking (and often quite dangerous) for the average Christian in the middle ages. There are a number of different ways the stations can be arranged, but the traditional one has fourteen stations, that go from “Pilate condemns Jesus to die” to “Jesus is placed in the tomb.” Only in recent decades have Protestant churches begun to provide Stations of the Cross for their parishioners and community. Like the rosary and the “Hail Mary” prayer, Stations were a spiritual tool that Protestants shunned.

Which is why it surprised and delighted me when a group within Prince of Peace, the Lutheran congregation where I am pastor, offered to create a set of fourteen paintings that we could use as Stations of the Cross. I met with this group, and helped them design their plan. They explored several options, including one or two “Protestant versions” that didn’t include some of the traditional stations, like “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” which is not found anywhere in scripture, but is part of Catholic tradition. In the end, they decided to do the traditional style, and they put months into creating breathtaking artwork. And the congregation embraced it. The stations were hung in our nave (worship space) for the season of Lent. We offered opportunities for people to walk the Stations alone or in groups. Not everyone took those opportunities, but everyone seemed quite pleased to have this as a part of our Lenten journey that year.

There was one thing I always expected to hear, but never did: “That’s too Catholic.” I really thought I would overhear, or hear second- or third-hand that people were complaining that we were doing Catholic things at Prince of Peace. I had heard that complaint so many times in other Lutheran churches. I said at the beginning of the post that Stations of the Cross are common in Roman Catholic churches. Well, identifying ourselves as not Roman Catholic is unfortunately a common thing in Lutheran churches.

  • “We can’t have communion more frequently – that’s too Catholic.”
  • “We shouldn’t be making the sign of the cross – that’s too Catholic.”
  • “We can’t have a worship service on Saturdays – that’s too Catholic.”
  • “We don’t want the pastor wearing that chasuble – that’s too Catholic.”
  • and so on, and so forth.

I’m so delighted that I really haven’t ever heard this complaint at my current congregation, even when we made the move to weekly Holy Communion. But boy have I heard it elsewhere. And I think it’s so tremendously sad and small-minded, and in the end rather confused. The intent behind the “that’s too Catholic” comment seems to be a way of reminding the pastor (because it’s usually the pastor who apparently “wants us to be Catholic”) that Martin Luther started the Reformation in order to make sure we don’t do anything the Catholics do. Apparently whatever cultural differences there are between Catholics and Lutherans in the 21st century — those differences are precisely why Luther risked his life to try to reform the church. Here I stand – I will not allow people to genuflect!

But first of all, Luther never wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He never wanted to abolish the mass. He encouraged everyone to make the sign of the cross. He wanted worship in his churches to be just like in Roman Catholic churches of the 16th century, except to change the focus to an urgent focus on God’s grace. He threw out Latin in the mass, because it was hindering people’s understanding of God’s grace. He threw out indulgences (buying your way out of purgatory), and in fact the whole idea of purgatory, because it was hindering people’s understanding of God’s grace. But he didn’t want to change everything.

And secondly, I have so often been tempted to respond to “that’s too Catholic” with a diatribe like this: “You’re right. I’m sorry. I forgot that we’re Lutheran, and we don’t do anything the Roman Catholics do. From now on, we won’t baptize infants, because Catholics also do that. From now on, we won’t share communion at all, because Catholics do that. We’ll stop reciting the creed, and also the Lord’s Prayer. After all, they are recited in every Roman Catholic church. We will stop reading from the Bible. We will stop singing hymns. Catholic priests preach sermons, and they officiate over burials and marriages. I’ll stop doing those things. Sunday School will be canceled, as will Confirmation Class. I’m really not sure what we’ll do with all this free time, but I know it will be good, because it won’t be Catholic.”

I never had either the guts or the bad judgment to respond to someone with that rant. But it did feel good to write it here. Now, where was I? Oh yes, number fourteen. The Stations of the Cross traditionally have fourteen stops.

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