Denise Johnson is a member of Winnetka Covenant Church in Wilmette, Illinois, and is pursuing a master in divinity degree at North Park Theological Seminary.
A Covenant congregation takes a Lenten journey through Scripture, meditation, prayer, and art.
I have always struggled with the season of Lent. I viewed it as dark, somber, and sad, adding a gloomy feeling to the already long dark days of winter. The hymns associated with the season seemed dark, somber, and sad as well.
I was never sure exactly what I was supposed to do during this time. Growing up, we didn’t have a particularly strong tradition of marking the season, such as giving up something for Lent, as did some of my friends from other faith traditions. Somehow giving up chocolate for six weeks didn’t quite seem to fit a season characterized by scourging, crucifixion, and death. As an adult I heard about the practice of adding something to your daily routine rather than giving something up, which sounded more appealing. However, not being a particularly disciplined person, I rarely if ever made that happen.
Several years ago our family experienced several deaths, a house fire, illness, and various other losses over a relatively short period of time. Celebrating the holidays that year did not come easily. But as the Christmas season lost some of its luster, it was replaced by a deeper appreciation of the season of Lent.
During that rather sad and lonely period of my family’s life, a friend introduced me to the spiritual discipline of walking the Stations of the Cross during Lent. I had heard about this practice and even participated once through a seminary class, but I knew very little about the tradition and its rich history in the church. However, after visiting one particular Catholic church and walking through the stations with the priest and other parishioners, I felt a deeper connection to Christ’s journey to the cross, his death, and also to the season in general. Here was an experience that paralleled the sadness and darkness of my personal season of life and allowed these feelings to dwell in me without excuse. I went back the next year and the next and through the experience began to find rest in the starkness and darkness of the season. I began to find solace in what formerly could have felt oppressing or depressing, as if being engulfed in a warm blanket to comfort my shivering soul.
As this experience began to shape my outlook on Lent, I wanted to share it with others, especially my congregation. How could I bring this experience to them? It occurred to me that with the artistic gifts of so many in our congregation, we would be able to create a version of the Stations of the Cross in our own context. The idea was presented to the pastors, who readily agreed, and to our church’s worship resource committee, which ended up coordinating the project. So began a two-year process of formulating and bringing a vision to fruition.
The project sought to create a formational experience through a new learning experience and the spiritual practice of walking the Stations of the Cross. To accomplish this, we joined together to celebrate our common life by drawing on the gifts of the congregation. Our artists created original works depicting each of the fourteen stations. Our writers developed a companion guide with Scripture and original meditations and prayers for each of the stations. Our musicians and their friends provided different seasonal music each week in the church sanctuary. The experience took place on Friday evenings during Lent and was set up in the church narthex with minimal lighting, mostly focused on the artwork, to create a mood of somberness and quiet. Participants were invited to engage with these elements in whatever manner was most meaningful to them as they encountered Christ and identified with his journey to the cross.
As the weeks progressed and word spread, people returned to walk through the stations again or just to sit in the sanctuary and listen to the music. My initial experience in the Catholic church did not include a musical component, but our inclusion of this element turned out to be a surprising delight. In the Catholic church the priest usually leads the congregation through the experience corporately, but our space did not lend itself to this model. As a result, participants walked through the stations individually, even if they came in a group. The music then became a uniting factor—while each person participated individually, they all were listening to the same music. Standing in front of an installation of the cross with rough-hewn beams tied together with rope and hearing “The Old Rugged Cross” played or sung was truly a profound moment.
Our pastors and youth counselors incorporated this experience as part of the confirmation class and senior-high youth program. Students took turns reading from the meditation guide as they engaged and processed the experience together. One of our goals was to develop a component for the younger children, but unfortunately time and energy ran out and we were unable to incorporate this aspect in the experience.
The project also included a six-week adult Sunday-school class taught by Mary Veeneman, assistant professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University. She presented the historical perspectives, background, and significance of the Stations of the Cross. Each week during this time one of the artists shared the vision of his or her artwork with the class. The class offered participants the chance to give feedback from their own experience, ask questions of the artists, and engage in a discussion about theological and historical issues surrounding the Stations of the Cross. Adding this element enriched the experience for those who were unfamiliar with or had little knowledge of this tradition.
The church also extended invitations to area churches and others in the community through announcements in local media. Additionally, many in the congregation brought family, friends, and neighbors. The artwork hung in the church narthex from Ash Wednesday through Easter. Individuals were also invited to visit the artwork and engage in the experience on their own any time the church was open during Lent. Each Sunday congregants and attenders were able to view the work as they entered and exited the sanctuary before and after worship.
This was truly a project whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts. We were able to introduce our congregation to a spiritual practice and tradition that was unknown to many. Now when they are visiting other locations they take note of the Stations of the Cross where previously they may have gone unnoticed. The artwork, meditations, and music provided by members of our congregation offered them the opportunity to share their gifts in a unique way but also enriched the experience for others who were awed by the talents of their fellow parishioners.
Most important was our profoundly deeper connection to Christ as he journeyed to the cross to offer himself for our sins and our salvation.