Holy Week at Covenant Life Church, a Christian Reformed church in Grand Haven, Michigan, has taken on a very distinct shape over the last twelve years. Prior to celebrating the glory of the resurrection, we create space to dwell with Christ by way of an immersive Stations of the Cross experience. The Stations of the Cross have a long, storied history within the Christian faith. For us, our goal is to create an interactive, meditative, and multi-sensory journey with Jesus, walking with him in the final hours of his life, leading up to his death and resurrection.
What Are the Stations of the Cross?
Also known as the “Way of the Cross” or the “Via Dolorosa,” the Stations of the Cross depict the journey that Jesus took from the garden of Gethsemane to the cross, the idea being that the pilgrim, or person visiting each station, joins Christ on the journey through contemplation.
For some churches the stations are a part of the architecture or stained glass windows, for others it may be artwork that hangs all year long or is put up seasonally. While there are certain traditions, including the Scripture passages that surround each station, the goal is always to help the pilgrim contemplate and be shaped by the self-giving sacrifice of Christ for the world.
The stations that closest follow Scripture are as follows:
- Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane
- Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested
- Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin
- Jesus is denied by Peter
- Jesus is judged by Pilate
- Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns
- Jesus takes up his cross
- Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross
- Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem
- Jesus is crucified
- Jesus promises his kingdom to the repentant thief
- Jesus entrusts Mary and John to each other
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb
A variation is found in the Philippines which begins with the Lord’s Supper and concludes with the Resurrection:
- The Last Supper
- The agony in the Garden
- Jesus before the Sanhedrin
- The scourging and crowning with thorns
- Jesus receives the cross
- Jesus falls under the weight of the cross
- Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene
- Jesus meets the pious women of Jerusalem
- Jesus is nailed to the cross
- Jesus and the repentant thief
- Mary and John at the foot of the cross
- Jesus dies on the cross
- Jesus is laid in the tomb
- Jesus rises from death
For additional resources on the Stations of the Cross from Reformed Worship go to the ReformedWorship.org and search “Stations of the Cross.”
Even though we have the same goal in mind, the experience changes each year. Our visual design team gathers to pray and talk through the 14 stations that are traditionally included in the scriptural Stations of the Cross. We try to choose the seven or eight stations that we are inspired to create, while still being able to give a faithful picture of the whole story, from the garden of Gethsemane to the tomb.
There isn’t a formula for how we select the stations each year. It mostly comes from prayer and conversation as a team. If someone comes to the table with a developing concept for a way to build the station where Judas betrays Jesus, that might influence the development of the other stations around it and how the overall story is told.
Sometimes we’ll tackle a station simply because we’ve rarely approached that particular one, and there may be new insights from the challenge. Sometimes we’ll revisit an idea for a station because it was tremendously impactful a few years prior. Sometimes stations are shaped by the space that we’re using in the church building. Sometimes we’ll reuse a previous concept simply because we’re short on time and resources, and recreation is simpler than creation from scratch. (Creative people are sometimes scared of repeating ideas, because it appears like a lack of creativity. We don’t tend to subscribe to that concept though and believe repetition has a very meaningful place in the life of the church.)
The one thing that has never changed from year to year: participants will have a chance to hammer nails into a cross. It may take on varied forms, but there is something terribly powerful about pounding a nail onto a cross in this sort of intentional context. Even hearing the nails while you’re in other stations can serve as a reminder of the gravity of what Christ went through.
Ideally, we’re able to partner up two team members to co-direct a station together. Some people see themselves as idea-people (designers), and others see themselves as makers who work with their hands (builders). Of course, the delineation of gifts and limits is never that clearly defined, and designers will always help build and builders always have great ideas. We do tend to see great results when designers and builders are paired together to co-direct a station and bring it to life.
The overall journey is tied together by the greater story: this is what Christ experienced in the final hours leading up to his death. The invitation is to an awareness of the weight of what Christ endured and the overwhelming love bound up in the person and work of Jesus.
Our Stations experience is self-guided and self-paced, and is best set up for individuals, families, or small groups of three to five people. It’s usually dark, with low lights to set an atmosphere of reverence. We often have ambient music playing as a soundtrack as well.
In each station we invite people to do three things: read, reflect, and respond. A participant will be asked to read a passage of Scripture or listen to a recording that shares a piece of the story. Then, there will be a reflection of some sort, which might include a prayer, song lyric, or other biblical connections. Finally, people are invited to respond in some way through an “interactive” (as a noun). For an interactive, we are hoping to physically embody the story in a creative, often metaphorical way, so that the gospel might dwell in our hearts and minds more richly.
Beyond the scriptural stations there are two additional stations to bookend the experience. The “Preparing Your Heart” station gives people a chance to catch their breath before entering into Jesus’ struggle. We end with the final “Reflection” station that gives people a chance to respond to the overall experience, pointing people toward the resurrection and the fact that the journey to the cross is not the end of the story.
An Example: The Two Cups
The 2016 version of the Stations began in the garden of Gethsemane. This is usually our starting point for the Stations (although we began in the Upper Room one year, which was also very powerful). The owners of the Grand Haven Garden House are a part of our church family, and for years they have faithfully donated fascinating plants, rocks, and other elements so that we can create a garden for this first station.
The reading came from Luke 22, focused on verse 42: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” We asked people to reflect on the fact that Jesus had two choices in front of him, and because of his obedience to the Father, he was willing to drink from the cup of suffering.
Finally, for the interactive, we had placed two goblets on a table in the garden. One was filled with vinegar, the other with grape juice. We asked people to deeply breathe in the smell of each cup. Jesus chose to drink the bitterness from the cup of suffering, so that we might drink from the cup of sweet life.
For twelve years we’ve asked people to touch, taste, smell, see, and hear the story of Christ’s crucifixion. Each year it takes on a new shape, and each year the Holy Spirit meets us in new and unique ways as we desire to know Christ and the depth of his love for us.