Practicing Christians have just concluded their forty days of spiritual renewal, weeks of laboring to transform those habits of mind and heart that ever keep us from living in the likeness of Christ. For those of us who engage the support of a Christian community, these culminating days of Holy Week are the most rich and challenging of our liturgical cycle. We gather, as our spiritual ancestors have for two millennia, to remember the pattern and purpose of the Christian life: to empty ourselves of ourselves, to die to what is deadly, to wear the mark of the Servant. We remember a sacred story; we enact a sacred rite. We say words and make signs that are pure paradox; we pray that in some way they may awaken us, as they did the Savior Jesus, to the true potentials of our human nature.
Any Christian who is really "working the way" knows the cost of this kind of authentic life: a willing sacrifice of a false self, because a false self is a menace to everybody. It clings to its own limited sense of identity; it contracts when invited to expand; it shuts down when summoned to open up; it takes shelter when challenged to go to the next frontier of integrity and blessing. The false self is its own kind of "cross."
One of the most rehearsed practices of these holy days is a prayer pattern called The Stations of the Cross, a dearly cherished tradition in Catholic Christianity. The Stations are a way for believers to move into the mystery of the passion: Christ's passion, the world's passion, and our own passion. They are a way to make a contemplative passage with the healer Jesus, through fourteen movements of radical self-surrender, lingering at each place to conform ourselves to its paradox and its grace. With each station, our capacity to suffer the death of the old self augments. In the process of enduring this kind of conscious suffering, our communion with others who suffer grows, our compassion intensifies, our wisdom deepens. We learn that there is no exit to freedom except on the Via Dolorosa, and we learn to walk it with courage and hope.
In fact, the Way of the Cross is more than a devotional practice - it is a political act when prayed in solidarity with those who are being crucified every day in our world. What Christians call "the passion of Christ" continues all around: Christ the betrayed, the violated, the humiliated, the refugee, the powerless, the homeless, the poor, the abandoned, the violated, the oppressed.
At the conclusion of these Stations, as at the end of these days of Lenten work, we may be graced to sense a new lightness of being, liberated from the burdening weight of the thick and thorny old self. Perhaps we sense ourselves lifted up on the cross of our own life's paradox, inexplicably illumined by a light that hides in its shadows. Then the Christian heart wants to sing the song of Thomas Aquinas, a hymn of the rood, chanting a canticle of conversion that celebrates the mystery of self-emptying, transfiguring love.