As we enter into Holy Week, and pray for the healing of our world at the foot of the cross, St. John Henry Newman’s Meditations on the Stations of the Cross are a powerful devotion. What is especially powerful about Newman’s devotions is the way they bring to life his philosophy of “personalism”—that the truths of the faith must become real in the heart and mind of each individual believer. Through a deep combination of will, reason, and emotion, and our own unique character, made in God’s image and likeness, we are transformed by Christ. This is why, for instance, each saint is unique and unrepeatable—the precise flavor and character of each person fully conformed to Christ is a different piece in a divine mosaic.
In other words, learning the faith is not like just attending a lecture, or just feeling emotions, or just agreeing with facts—it is our full person coming into a loving relationship with other persons, especially the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. On Good Friday, let us allow our full selves to encounter Christ’s sufferings and death, and make them our own. Likewise, let us then journey to Easter and contemplate Christ in his resurrected life, deepening our own unique and loving knowledge of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. Let us stay with Christ through his earthly sufferings, death, and resurrection. Newman’s Meditations on the Stations of the Cross is a wonderful help on this journey.
In the meditation for each Station of the Cross, Newman considers how Christ’s journey to Calvary is also, in some way, the journey of the individual believer; Christ’s story of suffering, death, and resurrection corresponds to our story of sinfulness, hope, and redemption.
Notice how Newman invites to a very personal body and soul encounter, with Christ in various stations:
“Jesus is condemned to death. His death-warrant is signed, and who signed it but I, when I committed my first mortal sins?” (First Station: Jesus is Condemned to Death)
“…that heavy Cross is the weight of our sins. As it fell upon His neck and shoulders, it came down with a shock. Alas! what a sudden, heavy weight have I laid upon Thee, O Jesus.” (Second Station: Jesus Receives his Cross”)
“What has He done to deserve all this? This is the reward received by the long-expected Messias from the Chosen People, the Children of Israel. I know what to answer. He falls because I have fallen.” (Seventh Station: Jesus Falls a Second Time)
“O Thou who in Thy Passion wast stripped of all Thy clothes, and held up to the curiosity and mockery of the rabble, strip me of myself here and now, that in the Last Day I come not to shame before men and Angels.” (Tenth Station: Jesus is stripped and drenched with gall)
Observe how, in these beautiful meditations, Newman takes some physical aspect of Christ’s suffering and compares it to a personal experience of penance, mortification, and hope for salvation (“I have fallen, my sins shall die…”). Christ’s sufferings become the substance of our spiritual journey, the food for our living belief.
As we die with Christ on Good Friday, let us contemplate especially Newman’s meditation over the dead body of Christ in the Twelfth Station, Jesus Dies Upon the Cross:
Jesus hung for three hours. During this time He prayed for his murderers, promised Paradise to the penitent robber, and committed his Blessed Mother to the guardianship of St. John. Then all was finished, and He bowed His head and gave up His Spirit.
The worst is over. The Holiest is dead and departed. The most tender, the most affectionate, the holiest of the sons of men is gone. Jesus is dead, and with His death my sin shall die. I protest once for all, before men and Angels, that sin shall no more have dominion over me. This Lent I make myself God’s own for ever. The salvation of my soul shall be my first concern. With the aid of His grace I will create in me a deep hatred and sorrow for my past sins. I will try hard to detest sin, as much as I have ever loved it. Into God’s hands I put myself, not by halves, but unreservedly. I promise Thee, O Lord, with the help of Thy grace, to keep out of the way of temptation, to avoid all occasions of sin, to turn at once from the voice of the Evil One, to be regular in my prayers, so to die to sin that Thou mayest not have died for me on the Cross in vain.
The savior has taken our place as sinners. The bodily death of Jesus becomes the spiritual life of our souls, the death of our sins. What a mystery that Christ’s own followers, family, and persecutors were left to wander the earth while he died and remained dead for three days. In the Thirteenth Station, Newman wonders at the sorrow of Mary having the dead body of her son laid in her arms; yet in this sorrow is “still greater joy.” Then, in the Fourteenth and final Station, Mary must “give Him up” to the grave for three days, and the meditation directly addresses Christ:
Lie down and sleep in peace in the calm grave for a little while, dear Lord, and then wake up for an everlasting reign. We, like the faithful women, will watch around Thee, for all our treasure, all our life, is lodged with Thee. And, when our turn comes to die, grant, sweet Lord, that we may sleep calmly too, the sleep of the just. Let us sleep peacefully for the brief interval between death and the general resurrection. Guard us from the enemy; save us from the pit. Let our friends remember us and pray for us, O dear Lord. Let Masses be said for us, so that the pains of Purgatory, so much deserved by us, and therefore so truly welcomed by us, may be over with little delay. Give us seasons of refreshment there; wrap us round with holy dreams and soothing contemplations, while we gather strength to ascend the heavens. And then let our faithful guardian Angels help us up the glorious ladder, reaching from earth to heaven, which Jacob saw in vision. And when we reach the everlasting gates, let them open upon us with the music of Angels; and let St. Peter receive us, and our Lady, the glorious Queen of Saints, embrace us, and bring us to Thee, and to Thy Eternal Father, and to Thy Co-equal Spirit, Three Persons, One God, to reign with Them for ever and ever.
Trusting that the dead Redeemer will yet come to life, waiting and watching like the faithful women, means desiring that we, too, will live in heaven, by the grace of God, even when we die. Our own mortality, in Christ, heralds the glory of Jacob’s ladder, the angelic hosts of heaven, the communion of saints and our great Queen and Mother.
As Newman writes in the Fourteenth Meditation for his shorter Stations (see link below), Jesus “was nearest to his everlasting triumph” when he “seemed to be farthest from triumphing.” We too, when by the standards of the world seem to be closest to failure, sickness, and death, can be comforted that, in Christ, we are actually closest to our own “everlasting triumph.” Because, as St. Paul says, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Consider praying with Newman’s Meditations on the Stations of the Cross in your own home if you cannot make it to a church in your parish. Let them pierce your heart, mind, and soul with affection and love for our Savior and his sufferings that you may share in his glory.
Newman’s Meditations on the Stations of the Cross: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/meditations/meditations5.html
Newman’s Shorter Meditations on the Stations of the Cross:
Newman has many more meditations that may be useful for our growth in the spiritual life during this Holy Week, and pandemic. You can find these here: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/meditations/index.html