My eldest daughter was excited to go to Stations of the Cross. She’d never been before – or, at least, didn’t remember – and her ears perked up every time it was mentioned at Mass.
“Sure,” I said. “We’ll check it out this Friday.”
In my mind, I was imagining a dimly lit church, quiet prayers, gentle chanting and the slow shuffling of feet from one Station to the next. I love the meditative motion of praying the Stations. It might not be a five-year-old’s ideal Friday night, but she was curious – and happy to be out past her bedtime.
The packed parking lot quickly disabused me of any sort of quiet, gentle, dimly lit prayer experience.
We had stumbled into a living Stations of the Cross put on by students from the nearby Catholic school. My daughter was enchanted, and we crammed into one of the brimming pews.
The advantage of the noise and quasi-chaos of a living Stations is that I could answer any questions in whispered real time. Even on her tiptoes, my daughter couldn’t see nearly everything.
“What’s happening now?”
“They’re giving Jesus the cross.”
“And what was that noise!?”
“Who’s that lady? Is that Mary?”
“Yikes! It’s so loud.”
“Well, he fell again. It’s going to happen at least once more.”
“I don’t like it.”
“It is loud.”
Each time Jesus fell, you could feel the crack of the wooden cross hitting the floor. Each time, the kids playing soldiers drew their swords and half-heartedly thrust them at Jesus.
I chuckled the first time. “Look at those swords!” I whispered the second time. But on the third time, I found myself deeply affected by these fifth graders’ portrayal of Roman soldiers.
Sure, I’ll bet anything they just wanted an excuse to wave a sword around – that’s what I would’ve wanted. After all, there’s not a lot of combat scenes in the Stations.
But the more I stared at this image – Jesus, collapsed under the weight of his cross, vulnerable and struggling, and in response, soldiers draw their blades – the more it weighed on me. This was more than just a random acting decision by a bunch of ten-year-olds.
We all have that impulse, I think, to respond to vulnerability and sorrow with fear and violence. Perhaps not so dramatically as unsheathing swords, but I invite you to think on your own life.
How often am I tempted to turn on my crying children with anger and frustration rather than empathy and concern?
How often do I grow irritated at a traffic accident, rather than show compassion toward someone who might be injured?
When a colleague or a friend or a family member comes to me with a concern or worry, do I first think of the items on my to-do list that will now have to wait?
And what about those folks I pass in my daily commute, those who are in need – do I respond to that vulnerability with kindness or by casting my gaze downward?
Note how in none of these scenarios were swords drawn. But still, we see the face of Christ sullen and sorrowful in each of these moments – a child, a coworker, a nameless face on our commute. When we hear that snap crack of someone’s cross hitting the pavement, that moment of need and desperation and vulnerability, do we lead with the tip of our blade or with outstretched arms?
I know I can be quick with the proverbial sword – anger, hurtful words, rejection. Never does a blade solve the needs of those who have come to me in their vulnerability.
Perhaps as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage, we can both reflect on our own knee-jerk responses and our openness to seeing Christ in those around us. Do I let fear, violence or selfishness guide my responses to others? Do I see the face of Christ in these moments?
I love those quiet, meditative, dimly lit Stations of the Cross. But stumbling into those living Stations with my daughter – being forced to brush elbows with a packed church, squinting in the face of a million cameras, having to peer over countless heads to even know what’s going on – called me to be mindful of just how alive the Stations should be. How I play a role in them, even now, even today, even in seemingly mundane moments and ordinary interactions.
Let’s put away our swords.
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Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian.