All aboard the slow train

Today marks the beginning of Passion-tide and the fifteen days between now and Easter have been celebrated by the Church throughout history by dwelling on the story of Jesus’ last days. One of the most useful ways for doing this is the practice developed by the Franciscans of following the way of the cross by stopping at various stations or stopping points. For those who may have followed The Way of the Cross in Jerusalem, I think you will agree with me that it is a bit like getting aboard a slow train – not a mechanical one, but a human one – and stopping every few minutes along the journey to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. So, I would like to invite you to come aboard that slow train with me and, as we stop at each station, reflect on our present life in the light of the enduring Passion story. There are fifteen stations along our way, so one for each day leading to Easter.

Our first station is the one where we board the train, the station where Jesus faced Pilate and was sentenced to death. As we set off we remember all those in positions of responsibility – our international, national and local leaders – who are having difficult decisions to make. May God help them to act wisely and kindly. As we follow their directions, we stop with Jesus at the second station where he accepted his cross. Here we remember all who have crosses to bear, whether it is just the simple cross of self-isolation, or the more difficult crosses of terminal illness, abuse or living with a loved one who suffers. At the third stop we remember the first of three falls and, calling to mind Jesus’ heavy cross, we remember that many of us find the journey of life one of stumbles and struggles. At the fourth stop, Jesus met his mother and we recall what pain she must have suffered seeing her son so badly treated. We remember all those who wait and watch alongside the suffering, and especially all those who at this time are afraid of losing loved ones. At the fifth stop we remember Simon of Cyrene, the one who was called to help Jesus carry the cross, and we remember all those who help others along the way of life’s struggles. Let us recall those who have helped us in times of need and, particularly at this time, remember all those in the caring professions – our NHS, Emergency Services, and other essential service workers – who are doing such a marvellous job to help those in need.

At the sixth stop the journey celebrates the meeting of Jesus with a woman whom tradition calls Veronica and who wiped his brow. We think of all those who care for the terminally ill and dying, for our Hospices, Critical Care Wards and all who will man the new Intensive Care Hospitals being built in our cities. At the seventh station Jesus falls again and we find ourselves once more thinking of those many times we have fallen down in life. Perhaps at this point we can remember all those who have fallen on hard times – those short of money, food and essential services – and ask ourselves how we might help them. At the eighth stop there are some women who meet Jesus and, although they are crying for him, he has compassion on them and tells them to think of their own situations. This act of selfless compassion calls on us to remember all those who act selflessly, all those who show care and compassion, and we think at this time of those hundreds of thousands who have volunteered to help their communities during these hard times. At the next stop Jesus falls again and we are reminded that, for many, the struggles of life continue unabated. We think of those who are afraid, anxious, depressed, or worn down and we ask God’s strength for them as they pick themselves up yet again. As if a third fall is not enough, at the tenth station Jesus is stripped of every last thing he has, his clothes. For all those who feel stripped to the bones, all those who feel humiliated and brought to the point of sheer naked terror, let us spare a thought today.

The first four of the last five stations are the most difficult as we accompany Jesus through Holy Week. First, he is nailed to the cross – we remember those facing death today, not just from the pandemic, but all those whose lives are coming to an end. At the twelfth station we remember Jesus dying on the cross, and we pray for all who will die today. Perhaps we can remember all those who have died in the pandemic in recent days as well as those who we have known and loved – everyone is precious to somebody, and all are precious in the sight of God. At the thirteenth station we remember Jesus being taken down from the cross by his friends, and we think of all those tasked with caring for the dead. We remember at this station our morticians, pathologists and funeral directors, and we thank all those who treat the dead with respect and care. At the last of the sorrowful stations we remember that Jesus was buried in the garden, and we pray for all who have been buried over the last few months. We call to mind those who celebrate at funerals, those who dig graves or work in crematoria, and all those who keep our graveyards as places of quet, peaceful rest and reflection.

And so, we reach our last stop where we get off the train on Easter Day. This is the day of resurrection and the promise of life without end. This stop marks the triumph of life, love and peace over everything, including death, and I commend all of you into this resurrection life. Resurrection is a return to the source of all life, that from which we come, and that to which we are heading back. May God bless you on this journey, and may the slow train take you from suffering to glory!

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