A van-load of Southern Baptists from the hills of West Virginia drives 160 miles to meditate on a Stations of the Cross art exhibit—twice? What’s wrong with this picture?
Say “Stations of the Cross” and most people think of the Catholic Church. Fortunately, Protestants have begun to recover this ancient practice, the roots of which began about the year 400 when devoted Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem during Holy Week. They walked long distances, fasted, and rested very little so they could travel the final path of their Savior and reflect on his life, suffering, and death. In the fifteenth century the Stations of the Cross—artistic representations of the final journey of Christ—became commonplace in the Roman Catholic Church.
St. Andrew United Methodist Church is a 550-member congregation in St. Albans, West Virginia, twelve miles west of Charleston, the capital city. Many very talented artists, most of whom are not professionals, are members of the St. Andrew congregation. These gifted people came to mind when I was considering a Lenten project for one of my classes at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies. This project turned out to be more than an assignment—it was life-giving for our congregation and community during the season of Lent.
I began the search for possible artists nine months before the artwork was due, with a general announcement in the church newsletter and website. I also compiled a list of about thirty-five artists and sent them individual letters asking them to consider participating in the project. They were given a choice of one of the fourteen Scripture passages used in the New Stations of the Cross. From the Scripture passage selected they were to create a piece of artwork that would later be sold in a silent auction to support missions.
Within a month enough artists had volunteered to participate, and, almost unbelievably, each person had chosen a different Scripture passage to depict! One of the artists, David Hollingsworth, later said this of his project:
Participating in the Stations of the Cross fulfilled two purposes. First it permitted me to relax, meditate, and dwell on God’s presence in my life. Second, by participating in this ministry for St. Andrew, I gave back to my fellow friends in Christ a vibrant piece of art that others could enjoy and subsequently reflect on their own spiritual journey.
Types of art included in the Stations of the Cross were oil painting, cross-stitch, woodworking, photography, quilting, pencil drawing, stained glass, and interpretative collage. They were beautifully displayed from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday in a rarely used overflow area in the rear of the sanctuary. Five volunteers used easels and tables draped with different fabrics to display the art. Lighting and seating was arranged to add to the meditative ambience. A CD of Taizé chant was available if anyone wished to accompany their meditation with music. The meditation area was available whenever the church was open and by appointment.
A booklet with the Stations of the Cross Scripture passages, meditations written by church members, and prayers from The New Stations of the Cross: The Way of the Cross According to Scriptureby Megan McKenna (Doubleday, 2003) was available for those wishing to use that in their meditations. (We secured permission to use the prayers from McKenna’s book from Random House, the copyright holder.)
Both of the Charleston newspapers and the local St. Albans paper wrote articles about our Stations of the Cross art exhibit and included color photos. This coverage, along with word of mouth, resulted in many community groups and individuals visiting the Stations of the Cross, including youth groups, Bible study groups, people who attended Lenten Recitals at our church, and church members who brought their friends. Many church members visited the meditation area several times during Lent. St. Andrew member Carmen Priddy, who frequently attends evening church meetings, noted,
I loved it! I wish we had something like this all the time. It helped me to focus before a meeting on those things which were (are) truly important. It helped me to pray in different ways throughout Lent.
On the Saturday before Easter we held our first-ever Holy Saturday service. We moved all the artwork to one side of the room and arranged chairs facing the pieces. Members of the drama team took turns standing by each Station and reading the Scripture passage associated with it. Between each reading we observed a time of silence. We sang a few hymns and read responsively or in unison some of the meditations written by church members. It was a very simple service that lasted about an hour.
The meaningfulness of the artwork, the closeness of the seated congregation, the periods of silence, and the story of the days leading up to the crucifixion of Christ made for a most holy time in the life of the St. Andrew congregation. The Easter Resurrection worship was made even more glorious because we had walked with Jesus by worshiping on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
After Easter we had a two-week silent auction period. Artists had assigned minimum bids—ranging from $75 to $200—to their artwork. Bidders filled out a form and put it in a box; no one could see what anyone else had bid. One of my fears was that some pieces would not receive a bid, but that did not happen. The silent auction raised $2,425, which was given to the Missions Committee to use for projects as they saw fit. Our congregation was blessed by turning the generosity of our artistic members into a way to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community, state, nation, and world.
We shouldn’t automatically assume that there will be nothing in others’ worship traditions to feed our souls. United Methodists, Southern Baptists, Catholics, and all the rest of the diverse community of Christians have this great mystery of faith in common: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.
So get out of your comfort zone. Look around, because there are more ways out there to honor and praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. For those who are willing to look, rich tapestries of worship possibilities await.
You may view a three-and-a-half-minute multimedia presentation about St. Andrew’s Stations of the Cross project by going to www.wvgazette.com/multimedia and scrolling down to the 3/19/10 posting entitled “Art of Lent.”