One of the great practices of Lent is praying the Stations of the Cross. But, like any spiritual exercise, it can become a dry, dull ritual if our hearts aren’t really in it. Several years ago, a wise, elderly priest named Monsignor John Esseff forever changed the way I understand the Stations of the Cross.
Monsignor Esseff has been a trusted spiritual advisor, confessor and retreat master to me over many years. I still remember how uncomfortable I was, though, when he first shared his signature phrase with me: with such sincerity, he tells practically everyone he meets: “You are Jesus.” The theologian in me kept adding qualifiers and circling through doctrinal formulations to justify the expression. But Monsignor kept insisting on the simplicity of it: “You are Jesus.”
I knew his spiritual director had been Padre Pio when he was young, and I knew he’d served as a confessor to Mother Teresa and lots of other well-known figures in the Church, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was getting mixed up with some wackiness. Nobody ever told me I am Jesus. To think such a thing without an assembly line of qualifications seemed at least misguided, if not heretical. I took comfort when I found the Catechism quoting Saint Augustine to make the same point: “[W]e have become not only Christians, but Christ himself.” And Joan of Arc insisted, “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing and we shouldn’t complicate the matter” (CCC 795).
This is where the spousal mystery of our faith takes us: truly, the two – Christ and his Church – have become one. It’s a unity so profound that, in a very real way, our life experiences are Jesus’ life experiences. Our sorrows and joys are his sorrows and joys. Our life story is his life story – and his life story is our life story. That’s the background for praying the Stations of the Cross in a whole new way.
More than once while on retreat with the good Monsignor, he has invited me to walk through each of the Stations of the Cross as Jesus – to insert my life story into the journey to Calvary, recognizing that Jesus relives his passion, death, and resurrection in and through each person’s unique life story. When was I “condemned to death”? When had I “fallen” for the first time? Where did I encounter Mary on my journey? Who was “Veronica” in my life? Who was “Simon” helping me to carry my cross? When was I “stripped,” etc.?
Between now and Easter Sunday, place yourself in each of the Stations of the Cross. Maybe you’ll have a memory of being “condemned” when you were mocked as a child by kids in the neighborhood. Maybe you’ll see yourself falling under the weight of your cross when you learned of your spouse’s pornography addiction or your father’s cancer. Maybe Simon was your 10th-grade teacher who pulled you aside after class because he could tell you were going through a really hard time and needed a shoulder to cry on.
The good news is this: not only does Jesus relive his passion and death in us. He also relives his glorious Resurrection and Ascension into heaven! This is the hope we celebrate as Lent comes to a close and the great celebration of Easter begins: whatever we have suffered, whatever we have endured will be transformed into glory. If that’s real, let me in!
For such a time as this have we been given Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. By taking us beyond the alternatives of prudish repression and damaging indulgence, the Theology of the Body opens the path to the redemption of sexuality and the real healing of our wounds. Learn more by watching my short film, The Cry of the Heart. Watch the trailer below.