Prayer For A Fuller Understanding Of The Meaning Of The Cross

The Passion of Christ

Prayer For A Fuller Understanding Of The Meaning Of The Cross
Christ on the cross ©

The Passion of Christ is the story of Jesus Christ's arrest, trial and suffering. It ends with his execution by crucifixion. The Passion is an episode in a longer story and cannot be properly understood without the story of the Resurrection.

The word Passion comes from the Latin word for suffering.

The crucifixion of Jesus is accepted by many scholars as an actual historical event. It is recorded in the writings of Paul, the Gospels, Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus. Scholars differ about the historical accuracy of the details, the context and the meaning of the event.

Most versions of the Passion begin with the events in the Garden of Gethsemane. Some also include the Last Supper, while some writers begin the story as early as Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the applause of the crowds.

The Passion is a story about injustice, doubt, fear, pain and, ultimately, degrading death. It tells how God experienced these things in the same way as ordinary human beings.

The most iconic image of the Passion is the crucifix – Christ in his last agony on the cross – found in statues and paintings, in glass, stone and wooden images in churches, and in jewellery.

The Passion appears in many forms of art. It is set to music, used as a drama and is the subject of innumerable paintings.

Spiritually, the Passion is the perfect example of suffering, which is one of the pervasive themes of the Christian religion.

Suffering is not the only theme of the Passion, although some Christians believe that Christ's suffering and the wounds that he suffered play a great part in redeeming humanity from sin.

Another theme is incarnation – the death of Jesus shows humanity that God had become truly human and that he was willing to undergo every human suffering, right up to the final agony of death. Another is obedience – despite initial, and very human, reluctance and fear, Jesus demonstrates his total acquiescence to God's wishes.

But the final theme is victory – the victory of Christ over death – and this is why the Passion story is inseparable from the story of the Resurrection.

The elements of the Passion story are these:

  • The Last Supper
  • The agony in the Garden of Gethsemane
  • The arrest of Jesus after his betrayal by Judas
  • The examination and condemnation of Jesus by the Jews
  • The trial before Pilate during which Jesus is sentenced to be whipped and crucified
  • The crucifixion of Jesus

The Last Supper

Jesus and the disciples share a last meal together either during Passover (Synoptic Gospels) or on the eve of Passover (John's Gospel).

The Last Supper was a Passover meal ©

During the meal Jesus blesses and breaks bread, which he gives to the disciples saying “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me”.

After the meal Jesus blesses some wine and gives it to the disciples saying “Drink ye all of this; for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me”.

This event is the foundation of the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, which includes services such as Holy Communion, Mass, The Lord's Supper. Although different Christian denominations have many different ways of celebrating the Eucharist, and understand it in different ways, they all developed from the Last Supper.

During the meal Jesus predicts that he will be betrayed by one of those sharing the meal with him, and that another of the disciples will disown him.

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The agony in the Garden

After supper Jesus goes with the disciples to spend the night in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus asks God if he can escape his fate…”Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

Despite this prayer he willingly submits to God's will and continues to prepare himself. God sends an angel to give Jesus strength for the ordeal.

Jesus continues to pray and his distress is such that 'his sweat was drops of blood'.

The disciples who Jesus asked to wait with him fell asleep; even his closest friends left him to suffer alone.

Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested

Judas betrayed Jesus by kissing him ©

A group of armed men, sent by the Jewish authorities, arrives in the Garden to arrest Jesus.

Judas betrays Jesus by identifying him with a kiss – the signal he had arranged beforehand.

Peter, one of the disciples, takes a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the arresting party. The disciple believes that he is trying to protect Jesus, but by doing so he abandons Jesus' teaching against violence.

Jesus forbids further violence and heals the injured man.

The disciples run away and Jesus is taken away.

Jesus is tried by Jewish officials

Jesus is questioned in front of a group of Jewish religious leaders. The Gospels give different accounts of this, and of who is present.

Caiaphas, the Chief Priest of the Temple wanted to destroy Jesus before he caused a rebellion that would bring down the comfortable world of the Temple and enraging the Roman authorities.

During questioning Jesus says enough for the Romans to see him as a rebel, and the Jews to regard him as a blasphemer.

The trial of Jesus before the Jewish authorities is a source of much controversy, and has been used in the past to justify anti-Semitism.

Modern Christians do not blame the Jews for the death of Jesus.

The Jewish authorities had several reasons for being angry with Jesus:

  • Jesus had challenged their authority – earlier in the week Jesus had gone to the Temple and protested against the moneychangers, as a symbolic denunciation of all the injustices the Temple stood for.
  • Jesus was reinterpreting Jewish Law
  • Jesus was breaking the laws concerning the Sabbath
  • Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, a claim which the authorities thought blasphemous
  • The claim to be Messiah suggested that Jesus was preparing some sort of rebellion – probably against the Roman colonial government. Such a revolt would endanger the relationship between Roman and Jewish authorities. (In those days the Messiah was expected to be a royal figure who would defeat the enemies of God and cleanse or rebuild the temple, and perhaps also bring God's justice to the world.)

Jesus is tried by Pilate

Jesus is tried by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, on a charge of treason. The Jewish authorities were not authorised to execute people, so they needed to transfer the case to the Roman authorities.

Pilate is not convinced that Jesus is guilty of a capital crime and suggests that it would be sufficient to flog him.

The crowd objects to this and demands that Jesus be killed. Pilate gives in and sentences Jesus to be flogged first and then executed by crucifixion.

Although the Gospels paint Pilate as a weak man who ignores justice rather than stand against the crowd, other sources say that he was tough and authoritarian, and unly to have been pushed around by anyone.
Purple was a royal colour, so the robe and crown mocked the claim that Jesus was King of the Jews ©

Pilate was eventually ordered back to Rome and tried for the cruel way he treated the people under his government.

There is a Christian tradition that Pilate and his wife eventually converted to Christianity.

The crucifixion

Jesus is whipped and then, to mock the claim that he is 'King of the Jews', given a crown of thorns and dressed in a purple robe. Jesus carries his cross to the place of crucifixion, helped by Simon of Cyrene.

The crucifixion takes place at a location called Calvary or Golgotha.

Jesus is stripped and nailed to the Cross. Above his head is placed a sign that says 'King of the Jews'. Two criminals are crucified alongside him.

After some hours the soldiers check that Jesus is dead by stabbing him in the side. Blood and water gush out.

Jesus' body is taken down and buried.

The Passion of Christ has featured in Christian liturgy since the 4th century.

It became an institution in the 5th century when Pope Leo the Great laid down that the St Matthew Passion should be part of the mass on Palm Sunday and the Wednesday of Holy Week, and the St John Passion should be part of the Good Friday service.

From the 7th century the service on the Wednesday of Holy Week featured the St Luke Passion, and from the 10th century the Roman Catholic Church used the St Mark Passion on the Tuesday of Holy Week.

From quite early the Passion was chanted in a dramatic way, with the reader representing the different voices in the story: the Evangelist as Narrator, the voice of Christ, and other speaking parts. Very often the words of Christ were chanted while the rest was spoken.

The texts were originally chanted by a single person, but from around the 13th century different voices took the different parts.

The first polyphonic Passion settings date from the 15th century.

As music became more sophisticated various forms of Passion were developed, ranging from straight narratives with music through to oratorios anchored to a greater or lesser extent in the text of scripture.

The St Matthew Passion of J S Bach is probably the best-known of the musical settings of the Passion.

The Passion in drama

'Passion plays' have been staged since the 12th century. The earliest play (so far) is one found at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. Two 13th century German passion plays are known, and Passion plays were more popular during that century and the one that followed.

The Passion of Christ was also portrayed in the English 'cycle plays'.

Passion plays often give a detailed portrayal of Christ's physical suffering and many of them include explicit dramatisations of the beating and execution of Christ.

There were at least two reasons for this: since all Passion plays emphasise the humanity of Christ and identify this with his physical experiences, a realistic Crucifixion brought the point home to the audience. Secondly, making the action as realistic as possible demonstrated to the audience that the death of Christ was a real historical event.

The most famous Passion play is the one that has been staged at Oberammergau in Upper Bavaria in Germany since 1634.

The villagers of Oberammergau had promised God that if he saved them from a plague epidemic they would commemorate it by staging a dramatic representation of Christ's suffering, death and resurrection every ten years.

The Oberammergau Passion play is particularly notable for involving the participation of the most of the villagers, with over 800 people in the cast.

The Passion in art

The Passion is one of the most common subjects in art. Paintings of the Crucifixion were much in demand for church use.

Detail taken from the Isenheim altarpiece ©

The earliest paintings of the Crucifixion date from the 5th century.

Among the most famous paintings is the Isenheim altarpiece (1515) by Mathias Grunewald. The painting of the Crucifixion is gruelling in both its detailed treatment of the physical anguish of Jesus, and the visual language used.

The Crucifix as a sculpted cross with the figure of Jesus dates from the 10th century (the Gero Cross of Cologne Cathedral).

In many churches a Crucifix stands on the choir screen, in the arch between the nave and the chancel. These are often known as 'roods' and the screen as a 'rood screen'. Rood comes from the Saxon word for a crucifix.

The Passion in plants

In this radio programme, Paul Morrison, a naturalist, explores the symbolism of flowers and plants in the crucifixion story. He goes in search of the plant the soldiers may have used to make Jesus' crown of thorns.

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Scriptural Stations of the Cross

Prayer For A Fuller Understanding Of The Meaning Of The Cross

The following stations of the cross are those celebrated byPope John Paul II on Good Friday 1991. They are presented here as analternative to the traditional stations and as a way of reflecting more deeply on the Scriptural accounts of Christ's passion.

Thepresiding minister may be a priest, deacon, or layperson. This ministerprays the opening and closing prayers, leads the acclamation, announcesthe stations, and says the prayer that concludes each station. One ormore readers may read the Scriptural reflections. A period of silenceshould be observed between the Scripture reading and the prayer.

Acrossbearer accompanied by two candlebearers may stand in front of eachstation as it is announced.

As the cross- and candlebearers move betweenthe stations, all may sing a verse of the Stabat Mater (At the Cross Her Station Keeping – traditional) or an appropriate antiphon, such as Parce Domine (traditional, various settings) or Crucem Tuam (Berthier, GIA),

Before each station:

Minister:We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you.


Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

Opening Prayer:

Minister:God of power and mercy,in love you sent your Sonthat we might be cleansed of sinand live with you forever.Bless us as we gather to reflecton his suffering and deaththat we may learn from his examplethe way we should go.We ask this through that same Christ, our Lord.



First Station: Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane

Reader:ThenJesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to hisdisciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took alongPeter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow anddistress. Then he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death.Remain here and keep watch with me.

” He advanced a little and fellprostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cuppass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned tohis disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could notkeep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may notundergo the test.

The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

(Matthew 26:36-41)


Lord,grant us your strength and wisdom,that we may seek to follow your will in all things

Second Station: Jesus, Betrayed by Judas, is Arrested

Reader:Then, while [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve,arrived, accompanied by a crowd with swords and clubs, who had come fromthe chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.

His betrayer hadarranged a signal with them, saying, “the man I shall kiss is the one;arrest him and lead him away securely.” He came and immediately wentover to him and said, “Rabbi.” And he kissed him. At this they laidhands on him and arrested him.

(Mark 14: 43-46)


Lord,grant us the courage of our convictionsthat our lives may faithfully reflect the good news you bring.

Third Station: Jesus is Condemned by the Sanhedrin

Reader:When day came the council of elders of the people met, both chiefpriests and scribes, and they brought him before their Sanhedrin. Theysaid, “If you are the Messiah, tell us,” but he replied to them, “If Itell you, you will not believe, and if I question, you will not respond.

But from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right handof the power of God.” They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” Hereplied to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further needhave we for testimony? We have heard it from his own mouth.

(Luke 22: 66-71)

Lord,grant us your sense of righteousnessthat we may never cease to workto bring about the justice of the kingdom that you promised.

Fourth Station: Jesus is Denied by Peter

Reader:Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. One of the maids cameover to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.

” But hedenied it in front of everyone, saying, “I do not know what you aretalking about!” As he went out to the gate, another girl saw him andsaid to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazorean.

“Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man!” A little laterthe bystanders came over and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one ofthem; even your speech gives you away.” At that he began to curse and toswear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately a cock crowed.

ThenPeter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken: “Before the cock crowsyou will deny me three times.” He went out and began to weep bitterly.
(Matthew 26: 69-75)


Lord,grant us the gift of honestythat we may not fear to speak the truth even when difficult.

Fifth Station: Jesus is Judged by Pilate

Reader:The chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the wholeSanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handedhim over to Pilate. Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of theJews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.

” The chief priests accusedhim of many things. Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer?See how many things they accuse you of.” Jesus gave him no furtheranswer, so that Pilate was amazed…. Pilate, wishing to satisfy thecrowd, released Barrabas… [and] handed [Jesus] over to be crucified.

(Mark 15: 1-5, 15)


Lord,grant us discernmentthat we may see as you see, not as the world sees.

Sixth Station: Jesus is Scourged and Crowned with Thorns

Reader:ThenPilate took Jesus and had him scourged. And the soldiers wove a crown thorns and placed it on his head, and clothed him in a purplecloak, and they came to him and said,”Hail, King of the Jews!” And theystruck him repeatedly.

(John 19: 1-3)


Lord,grant us patience in times of sufferingthat we may offer our lives as a sacrifice of praise.

Seventh Station: Jesus Bears the Cross

Reader:When the chief priests and the guards saw [Jesus] they cried out,”Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselvesand crucify him. I find no guilt in him.” …

They cried out, “Take himaway, take him away! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucifyyour king?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, andcarrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place ofthe Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha.

(John 19: 6, 15-17)

Lord,grant us strength of purposethat we may faithfully bear our crosses each day.

Eighth Station: Jesus is Helped by Simon the Cyrenian to Carry the Cross

Reader:They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who wascoming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carryhis cross.
(Mark 15: 21)


Lord,grant us willing spiritsthat we may be your instruments on earth.

Ninth Station: Jesus Meets the Women of Jerusalem

Reader:A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women whomourned and lamented him.

Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters ofJerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for yourchildren, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, 'Blessedare the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that nevernursed.

' At that time, people will say to the mountains, 'Fall upon us!'and to the hills, 'Cover us!' for if these things are done when thewood is green what will happen when it is dry?”
(Luke 23: 27-31)

Lord,grant us gentle spiritsthat we may comfort those who mourn.

Tenth Station: Jesus is Crucified

Reader:When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him andthe criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. [ThenJesus said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”](Luke 23: 33-34)


Lord,grant us merciful heartsthat we may bring your reconciliation and forgiveness to all.

Eleventh Station: Jesus Promises His Kingdom to the Good Thief

Reader:Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are younot the Messiah? Save yourself and us.

” The other, however, rebukinghim, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to thesame condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for thesentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has donenothing criminal.

” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come intoyour kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will bewith me in Paradise.”
(Luke 23: 39-43)

Lord,grant us perseverancethat we may never stop seeking you.

Twelfth Station: Jesus Speaks to His Mother and the Disciple

Reader:Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister,Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala.

When Jesus saw his motherand the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, “Woman,behold, your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother.

“And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
John 19: 25-27


Lord,grant us constancythat we may be willing to stand by those in need.

Thirteenth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross

Reader:It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until threein the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of thetemple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice,”Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said thishe breathed his last.
(Luke 23: 44-46)


Lord,grant us trust in youthat when our time on earth in endedour spirits may come to you without delay.

Fourteenth Station: Jesus is Placed in the Tomb

Reader:Whenit was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, whowas himself a disciple of Jesus.

He went to Pilate and asked for thebody of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking thebody, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tombthat he had hewn in the rock.

Then he rolled a huge stone across theentrance to the tomb and departed.

(Matthew 27: 57-60)


Lord,grant us your compassionthat we may always provide for those in need.

Closing Prayer:

Minister:Lord Jesus Christ,your passion and death is the sacrifice that unites earth and heavenand reconciles all people to you.May we who have faithfully reflected on these mysteriesfollow in your steps and so come to share your glory in heavenwhere you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spiritone God, for ever and ever.



Scripture excerpts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New TestamentCopyright© 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC.Used with permission. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby grantedto reproduce these excerpts in free distribution of these stations.


Why do Catholics make the Sign of the Cross?

Prayer For A Fuller Understanding Of The Meaning Of The Cross

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The sign of the cross permeates a Catholic’s prayer life, from the public prayer of the Mass to private prayer around the dining room table. The priest opens Mass by leading the congregation in the Sign of the Cross.

At the end of the Mass, he blesses the people “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and they cross themselves as he blesses them. At home, when Catholics pray before meals, they usually open and close the prayer by making the sign of the cross.

In Catholic schools, the prayers the school prays in common usually begin and end with the sign of the cross.

The sign of the cross often introduces and closes other prayers, but it is a prayer in itself and can also be prayed on its own. Sometimes Catholics make the sign of the cross, with or without words, at other times as well.

Many Catholics will cross themselves when they pass by a Catholic church or chapel where the Eucharist is present. Some may make the sign as they drive past a cemetery as a quick prayer for the dead who are buried there.

Sometimes Catholics may make a quick Sign of the Cross when receiving bad news, or when sirens pass, as a way of praying for those involved.

Praying the sign of the cross is so common that we often rush through it without thinking much about it. But the sign of the cross is an ancient tradition with deep theological meaning.

How to do the Sign of the Cross

From childhood, Catholics are taught to make the sign of the cross, saying:

“In the name of the Father, [while touching the right hand to the forehead]and of the Son, [moving the hand to the chest]and of the Holy Spirit. [touching one shoulder, then the other]


You’ve probably seen your Catholic friends do it or at least you’ve ly seen it on TV as it is often referenced.

The History of the Sign of the Cross

The first “sign of the cross” that early Christians made was tracing a small cross on their foreheads.

Around the year 200, Tertullian, an early Christian theologian, wrote about this sign: “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our forehead with the sign of the cross.” By the fifth century, other Christian writers reveal that the sign of the cross was also being made on the lips and on the chest. Over time, Christians began making large crosses over their bodies as Catholics do today. It is unknown exactly when and how that developed, but the sign of the cross as we know it today is probably about 1000 years old.

The Theological Meaning of the Sign of the Cross

The sign of the cross, in words and in action, reminds us of the two central realities of our faith: who God is (the Trinity) and what God has done for us (the Cross). These are the core of why Catholics do the sign of the cross. Let’s examine these both in more detail.

The Trinity

When we pray “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” we are invoking the Trinity.

While many religions teach belief in God, Christianity is unique in its belief that the one God is a Trinity of Persons.

This is a great mystery that not even the most intelligent theologian or the holiest saint could ever fully comprehend. We only know that God is a Trinity because God revealed this to us.

What we mean when we say that God is a Trinity is that there is one divine nature, one divine substance. A “substance” or “nature” is what something is. God, as a Trinity, exists in three Persons. A person is “who” someone is. In our experience, one human person each possesses one human nature.

A husband and wife, no matter how closely united, are still two separate beings. In God, however, three Persons possess the same divine nature. If you were to ask each Person in the Trinity, “Who are you?” each person would answer something differently: “I am the Father;” “I am the Son;” “I am the Holy Spirit.

” If you were to ask each Person, “What are you?” you would get the same answer from each Person: “I am God.”

The sign of the cross both reminds us of who God is and invites God into our prayer and into our lives.

Jesus’ Cross

While our words in the prayer of the sign of the cross are an invocation of the Trinity, the shape of the cross we make during this prayer are a reminder of the cross of Christ. Jesus’ death on the cross was the action by which he destroyed death, so the sign of the cross is a constant reminder of our salvation.

The Power of the Sign of the Cross

From the earliest days of the Church, Christians understood that the cross of Christ has great power.

Even the sign of the cross is powerful because it is a reminder of the instrument Jesus used to defeat Satan.

Tertullian (see above) recommended that the faithful mark themselves with the sign of the cross at all times because of its power in bringing Jesus’ sacrifice into their daily lives.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem expresses the power of the Cross very well:

Be the Cross our seal made with boldness by our fingers on our brow, and on everything; over the bread we eat, and the cups we drink; in our comings in, and goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we rise up; when we are in the way, and when we are still. … It is the Sign of the faithful, and the dread of devils… for when they see the Cross they are reminded of the Crucified; they are afraid of Him, who bruised the heads of the dragon. (Catechetical Lecture 13)

The sign of the cross is a powerful way of making us mindful of the Trinity and inviting God into our prayer and into our daily lives.

It brings the power of Christ’s cross to us and can be a powerful help against temptation and an excellent way of reminding us of the great things Jesus has done for us.

Pray the sign of the cross often and be mindful of what it means in the life of the Church and in your own life!

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