I am unsure why they finally settled on 14 Stations of the Cross. But processions were formed, the faithful moved from image to image. Through primitive pictures and glorious carvings and etchings--they told the story from Pilate’s court all the way to dark Saturday. At each station prayers were said, hymns were often sung; periods of silence were almost always observed. The Stations, which speak of the Passion of our Lord, are at the heart of the Christian story.*
Only one event in this sad journey is repeated. Not once—but three times. In Station 3 Jesus falls for the first time. I wonder if the church kept this scene and repeated its sadness three times to remind us that he really was a man of sorrows and acquainted with our grief.
Old-time Baptist loved to preach on once-saved-always-saved. The heresy worked its way out by saying once you “decided to follow Jesus” you were kept secure and safe. It didn’t matter what you did—beat your wife, abuse your children—be mean as hell—you had been saved and when the dust settled you were safe in the arms of Jesus. We pious Baptists loved to smack our lips and say: “The Methodists believe in falling from grace.” We Baptists didn’t believe this heresy—we just practiced it.
All this background hopefully leads us to the Third Station. Jesus fell underneath the load. If he had only been a specter or simply masquerading as a man—he would have never fallen. What kind of a God falls down and can’t get up? But some part of the church read the story clear. Jesus fell. Just as Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and old naked drunk Noah fell off the wagon. The whole book is a record of our fallings. David hot in pursuit of Bathsheba. Solomon with so many paramours he lost his kingdom. Israel in exile. Amos and Jeremiah and all the prophets railing against a people who fell far away from what they said they believed. Simon Peter lying through his teeth. Not to speak of Judas. One of the saddest sentences in the Gospels is: “They all forsook him and fled.”
So here our Lord is one with us. Who among us has not fallen from grace more than three times? The load gets too heavy. Too much too fast crashes in on us. Death of a loved one. Illness that eats away at our lives and often our bank accounts. The dreaded Alzheimer’s. Suicide. Not to speak of the moral failures or the ethical wrongs. We fall, oh yes we fall.
And so we need to stand at this Third Station and ponder the mystery. Jesus fell under the load. Here he is as human as he will be on the cross where the pain was real and the blood was red and he cursed loud and clear. And so standing by this Station perhaps we can see him understand our failings and our wrong-headedness. We do fall as did our Savior but that is not the end of the story. Station three—we have barely started the long journey.
Elizabeth Eliot said once that the trouble with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. We know that. And so we stand here and whisper a prayer as did another who had fell so far: “Lord, remember me...remember me.” The book says he will. Thank God for that.
*This idea came from a very fine book by Daniel Berrigan and Margaret Parker, Stations ( Harper & Row, 1989, p. ix)