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Homelessness, hunger and hope – the stations of the cross in 2019

Homelessness, hunger and hope – the stations of the cross in 2019

This Holy Week, Hannah Rich reflects on the story of Jesus’ death and its relevance in 2019. 15/04/2019

Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” (Gerald Manley Hopkins)

For Christians, the week before Easter – known as Holy Week – is full of rituals and practices centred on the gospel accounts of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. It can be easy to abstract this from real life and to see them only as distant narratives from a storybook. The Jesus I picture being crucified is sometimes more of a plasticine figure from the animated primary school retellings than a human with flesh and bones. Like the time I once asked my grandad if he remembered the day the world, like the television screen, first became colour, I perhaps need reminding every year that first century Israel wasn’t in black and white.

One of the rhythms and routines of Lent and Holy Week is the stations of the cross – a series of 14 images and prayers depicting Jesus on the road to Calvary, which you can find immortalised in paintings, carvings and icons around many church buildings. These echo the Via Dolorosa – the Way of Suffering – in Jerusalem along which Jesus is believed to have walked to his death. Again, it is often easy to lose ourselves in the artworks of each station or become over–familiar with them. But the stations of the cross are nothing if not clues as to where we might see the face of Christ today – a strange sort of treasure hunt for the suffering hidden in the world around us.

This year, I find myself reimagining [some of] the traditional stations through the people and places I’ve encountered in my research for the GRA:CE project.

Jesus falls the first time, in the form of a single mother so exhausted by life on the breadline that she falls asleep face first into the plate of hot, buttered toast offered by food bank volunteers. They lift her up and gently lead her to a sofa where she falls a second and third time, slumping down to take a nap while other helpers pack bags of groceries for her.

I have met people like Veronica countless times in all manner of church social action projects, in the army of volunteers lovingly caring for those on the margins of their community, whether through homelessness, poverty or isolation. Sometimes, it looks quite literally like wiping the face of a bedraggled visitor and providing him with somewhere to have a hot shower. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem as they gather in church halls for Mothers’ Union meetings, lunch clubs and toddler groups.

If the crosses people bear are obvious, the ways we can step in like Simon of Cyrene to share the load almost self–evident. But crosses do not need to be big to be heavy. Often they are etched across people’s faces rather than carried on their shoulders; like the asylum seeker whose uncertain future lies in the hands of a Pontius Pilate who sits at a desk in the Home Office. These crosses are harder to share. You cannot carry an immigration tribunal on someone else’s behalf, but only walk alongside them.

At the end of the road Jesus dies, is taken down from the cross and is placed in a borrowed tomb. A rough sleeper passes away in an anonymous doorway and is given a dignified send–off by a church community who hold a collection to cover the funeral costs. His grave clothes are his only possessions. A vicar and perhaps a handful of congregation members are the only mourners, but if they were not there, he would have no one.

The writer and activist Dorothy Day wrote that ‘those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed’. In the gospels, Jesus specifically tells us that when in embracing the hungry, thirsty, those in prison, we are connecting with him. This Easter, I see the face of Christ not just in a plasticine figure or a station carved out of wood on a church wall, but in the memories of a hundred different faces.

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Image by kristof lauwers under a Shutterstock licence.

Bronze ‘Homeless Jesus’ statue by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz in front of the Cathedral of Madrid, 19 August 2016.


Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

Watch, listen to or read more from Hannah Rich

Posted 15 April 2019

Christianity, Communities, Easter, GRA:CE Project, Poverty, Social Action


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