The Stations of the Cross: The Faces of Friday

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Winter 2011
– PDF version –

I encounter the restless suffering of people every day. The pain that I meet at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon does not easily scab over nor does it ever heal from the inside out. This pain comes from the consequences of surviving generational poverty. The suffering is long term when a middle-aged man tells me he has never loved anyone as an adult because he was raped as a child. A young bearded city-stroller confesses that his brother and sister prostituted their mother to make some quick cash for drugs. A dirty-faced woman suffers from years of mental illness and repeatedly asks me why God hates her so much. These are some of my encounters here on our urban parish corner. Our staff and volunteers spend their days listening, working and helping to sort out what the Church means on such a street-savvy block.

During this Lenten season, I begin my tenth year on this beloved block. I have learned throughout these years to honestly lean into the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising with our staff and many volunteers. I cannot sustain my presence here without taking stock of my faith on a daily basis. I have been stripped of every false notion and pious sentiment that I ever held. However, I know I can turn toward bitterness and rage when I see the ways our society treats individuals. I can rant and rave at how little the Church seems to care about people living in poverty. I sort out these options daily in order to survive my ministry.

I turn toward the only path that I know will bring life. This path is the real journey toward Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Stations of the Cross live in our midst. The moment-to-moment issues of suffering, denial, hatred, prejudice call me to go deeper into the real meaning of my faith. This past year, I wrote a version of the Stations of the Cross so members of our community could more easily find their stories in Christ’s love and resurrection. This version of the Stations of the Cross will also help educate benefactors about the lives of people in our community. Our pastoral associate, Andy Noethe, photographed volunteers and staff and produced a DVD. These stations tell composite stories of people whom I have met in ministry. These scenes of real people’s lives interpret the action of Jesus and the people whom he encountered on the way to the cross.

I share the stories to enable all of us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s life today. This Lenten season tempts us all to give up on our faith. The Gospels call us to wake up with the disciples to a new perspective of being with Jesus, not under a tent, but on the solid ground of our lives and ministry. Jesus longs to encounter our lives, to tell us how we have sinned in the past and then challenges us to be bearers of Good News. Jesus exposes our common blindness of neglect and ignorance and longs to set us free from the entombment of our fears. This is the journey toward the life Christ longs for us in every worshipping community.

The first two “Stations of the Cross: The Faces of Friday” are presented here. The video version will be available on the websites of Celebrate! Magazine. The video version and the written text will also be available on the website of the Downtown Chapel. I invite you to pray the various stories with faith and longing for the love God has for every person. These stories call me to realize I cannot control people’s lives, or change their circumstances, or solve their problems. However, I am changed profoundly by the depth of people’s sorrow in the center of life itself, in the promise of Christ Jesus.

The First Station: Jesus is condemned to death.

Leader: Show us your face, O God
People:  Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

I remember when Henry landed in jail. The newspapers said that he was arrested because of his violent outbursts in the streets in the middle of the night. Everyone who knows him realized quickly that his mental illness caused his lashing out, his violence.

When I visited him in jail he told me that he woke up that first morning lying on the concrete floor of his cell. His jittery words and shivering body could hardly express his confusion as I sat in front of him. He admitted that his real sentence is his lifelong mental illness. His fingers shook as he gestured his words. He cannot afford medication and cannot remember to take his pills anyway. Henry is simply unable to care for himself.

Henry so often condemned himself by thinking that he was worthless in other people’s eyes. He always apologizes for his slow ability to utter words or to speak up for himself. When Henry lived on the streets he used to swear that people hated him because some people would spit on him as he slept in a doorway. He would plug his ears as people condemned him with insults, loud obscenities and rude gestures as they passed him lying on the sidewalk. I was struck by how Henry’s jail cell is the place of Jesus’ unfair condemnation.

Leader: From the condemnation of poverty and discrimination:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the condemnation of mental illness and false accusations:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the condemnation of insults and obscenities:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

Personal Prayer and Meditation:
1.Where do you witness innocent people being condemned to suffering in the world?
2. How do you relate to your own struggles, personal suffering and loneliness?
3. How are you responding to the suffering of other people in your prayer and service to others?

The Second Station: Jesus is given his cross

Leader: Show us your face, O God
People:  Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

I never felt so helpless as the day I met Michael for the first time. He called me and asked to come to the parish office and talk. I will never forget his sad, drawn face, his skinny body standing in the threshold of my office door. I invited him in, but he refused to enter. He stared at me and said, “I have tried to speak with three other priests and they would not listen to me. Would you at least listen to me?”

I remember looking down at the floor and quietly assuring him I would listen. He came in and I offered him a soda. He nervously sat down and immediately told me he had AIDS. I did not confess my naïveté at that time about the complexities of his disease. We sat in the quiet office for hours, going over in detail the physical effects of his illnesses. But it was the emotional toll that devastated him. His parents threw him out of their home. He had not spoken with them in months. He was not getting proper medical care and his friends all disappeared when they heard of his diagnosis.

I sat in my office feeling so afraid because I knew I could do little to change anything for Michael. He taught me that to enter into real suffering means listening with an open heart. I walked with him on his ground of suffering for several months. And when he died, I walked with his family to a fresh grave as they tried to bury all the regrets of not caring for their son.

Leader: From the cross of fear and rash judgments:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the cross of shame and guilt:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the cross of family apathy and neglect:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

Personal Prayer and Meditation:
1. What does carrying the cross mean for your own life?
2. How do you view the crosses other people have to carry?
3. How do these crosses change your attitudes about people?

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