The Stations of the Cross
March 23, 2017
by James Matthew Wilson, with artwork by Daniel Mitsui
A fourteen-part cycle published serially with accompanying iconography.
I. Jesus Is Condemned
I tried to think for half an hour
About the face of earthly powers
That would condemn a god to die.
I listened for its menacing cackles,
The crack of whips, the clank of shackles,
And searched for dark flames in the eye.
Through the church window I heard shrieks
Of ambulances whose techniques
Help us to forget our wounds;
The certain hum of homeward motors,
A candidate’s rank appeal to voters,
In these its stare and voice I found.
For we sit kind, when comfort’s here,
But draw our weapons with our fears
Should we one pleasure be denied.
II. Jesus Takes His Cross
In every lifting of a phone
To a hot ear; in every moan
Rising from a disheveled bed,
In each unfolding of the paper,
To check his shares or learn who raped her,
In overhearing what lawyers said
Traveling between rail stations: our
Bodies strain for the weight you bore.
Oh, we would be weighed down instead.
III. Jesus Falls the First Time
There is a question scholars ask,
Or used to ask: given the cask
Of vital spirits that was Christ’s tomb,
Can our age speak of tragedy
Anymore? Or is comedy
The only plot left in the room?
Where Hector glowered at his shield,
Knowing that fate would never yield
Till ruin spread over the place he stood,
Now, the scene that follows a fall
Is an uplifting, after all:
Lazarus comes out and eats some food.
I’m sure you wondered much the same,
As your back opened up in pain
And sprawled beneath the blood-soaked wood.
IV. Jesus Meets His Mother
Her face seems calm, when he descries her
Dark mantle, and sees that her eyes are
Counting the strokes scored on his back,
Noting where woven thorns imprinted
Kingship on his brow, how rust-tinted
With damp the dust runs in his track.
He feels her kiss against his shut eye,
And tries to tell her he will not die.
She says she’ll see him through the race.
After all, she’s heard all his words;
Her heart received them undisturbed,
And undisturbed, now, her soft face.
But, the authorities speak with one accord:
That heart is pierced by seven swords
And bleeds for being so full of grace.
V. Simon Helps to Carry Jesus’ Cross
He had a bit of pocket money,
For once, and found himself half-running
To clank down coins for a jug of wine,
Perhaps a plate of smoking venison.
Anything left he wouldn’t mention
At home, but stash for sadder times.
The strong grieved arm that jerked him sideways
Through a mob, out onto the highway
Toward Skull Hill, seemed to come from nowhere.
So did the voice that broke his ear,
And the bruised man they pushed him near,
And that blunt wood which he must now bear.
He tried to smile at the crowd staring,
As if it were a joke, this sharing
At some hired foreign thug’s command,
A carpenter’s toy of nails and limbs.
A mule-faced boy laughed on with him.
But then the wood’s edge cut his hand,
His purse split wide beneath its weight
And coins fell, tinkling in his wake.
He felt a whip when he tried to turn.
“Where is your kingdom and your glory?”
He heard, and thought, “Not me. This sorry
Slave who’d be better trashed and burned.”
VI. Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
He stopped a moment, when her eyes
Met his and grieved to recognize
The mark of suffering in his face.
With a slow hand, she drew her veil,
Revealed herself, ashamed and pale,
As if awaiting his embrace.
But he stood, stultified, eyes bloodshot.
She wiped his face, although that could not
Stitch his ripped brow or salve his pain.
Standing back, then, amid the mob,
She saw the white square had been daubed
With the pained portrait of his looks,
As if to prove, in every prayer
Our airy words melt at his stare,
And his words jotted in our books
Are nothing to the fact of flesh,
The thorn-pricked head, the eyes impressed
Upon a piece of woven cloth.
Think of Bouguereau’s painted saints,
Their aureoles like pewter plates
To show, this too is material truth;
For our ideas dissolve in dreams,
Wants change with what the weather brings,
But the stamped weight of being remains.
VII. Jesus Falls the Second Time
All gold leaves to the earth returning,
The hungry winds cracked panes discerning,
To shriek and scour the season’s dark.
This child lifts his knee newly bloodied;
And that stares down at iced cake muddied,
Dropped during her birthday in the park.
Spinner seeds, spiders, Thrones and Powers,
The divorcee curled in the shower,
Whose steam rises above her groans.
All bombs, balloons, and shining gold hair,
The patient’s jaw when the image shows there
Malignant tumors, or waking life.
To see by chance a line of Scripture,
Or mispronounce it; the discomfiture
Of witches’ spells; or the thief’s knife
Raised before eyes naïve and fragile.
Yet, you lay, innocent beneath your mantle,
These things to you already known.
VIII. Jesus Speaks to the Women of Jerusalem
He turned to those who stood in tears
As if to coax away their fears
With promises of his bright kingdom.
But here is what he actually said:
“A day will come, when, sons unbred,
Bare wombs and big cars feel like freedom;
A day enthralled to vivid fictions,
Benumbed on doctors’ strong prescriptions,
And docile at the expert’s measure.
A day when men no longer seek
My burning love, my fearsome peace,
But to extend a minute’s pleasure.”
They watched him turn to climb the hill,
His flesh dragged by a hidden will,
And wondered what his death would bring them.
IX. Jesus Falls a Third Time
The first fall, they say, was a flash,
As Lucifer saw his light surpassed
And fired the hosts with his brash call.
We think the second came in Eden,
When curious thought like fruit was eaten,
Digesting paradise to dust.
The third one is less sure. When was it?
The Flood, Exile, David in his closet,
Drawing Bathsheba to his lust?
To nail a moment to its message
Is hard for us. What does it presage?
It may not mean a thing at all.
Three times Aeneas’ arms grasp the air
Intent to find his father there,
But gathers nothing to his chest.
Three times a voice disturbs your dreams
Before you guess what its call means:
To bear news of a curse you’re blessed.
Three times Christ asked him, “Do you love me?”
How many times must he absolve me
Till I grasp for whose sake he falls?
X. Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments
The day they rushed him in the street,
His buck teeth white in freckled cheeks,
One stomped his calves and watched him drop.
Another, with a dry limb snapped
Off a sick apple tree, then rapped
Him on his ribs and wouldn’t stop.
From then on, he was called the Mule.
Just so, this woman at the pool,
Slipping thick legs and small breasts in,
Overhears the eddies of contempt.
And the old pervert, when he’s sent
To prison, lives with threats, and then,
Chokes on blood while the guard’s at lunch.
So, though they whipped and crowned and punched
You, till your robe was sopping red,
They stripped it off and pierced your side,
Leaving you nothing left to hide
There stretched out on the wooden bed.
XI. Jesus Is Nailed to the Cross
For boys who pull the wings off beetles
Or prick their sisters’ backs with needles,
They spread his hand to take the nail.
For we who meet in dark motels
To clasp a stranger to ourselves,
His palm split as they drove the nail.
You, the one who frisked through her purse,
When she stepped out to find the nurse,
For you they placed a second nail.
While I got drunk this afternoon,
A child’s skull was torn from the womb,
Its cries rung in the hammered nail.
This whole world is a mound of skulls.
We like it so, lest days grow dull.
Watch them brace his feet for the nail!
For us, who keep our kitchens clean,
Who’d never have ourselves thought mean,
We had them drive the final nail
And set him hanging, his fists bleeding,
While we went shopping, cruising, feeding,
And in his shadow pared our nails.
XII. Jesus Dies on the Cross
His limbs splayed, writhing, as he hung there,
Murmuring of a kingdom somewhere
The Roman guards had never been,
The sun beat on his darkened head.
He barely heard what the good thief said,
So swollen and plugged his ears were then.
“I thirst,” his mother heard him cry.
“Why have you left me here to die?”
But then, more lucid, “Here’s your son.”
He said that, looked from her to John,
Till they saw what was going on,
And all at once clouds hid the sun.
XIII. Jesus Is Taken Down from the Cross
This morning, I hauled to the street
A heavy wooden pallet, so beat
The workmen had left it behind:
Its boards, rough-hewn and splintering
Against the asphalt. When I leaned
It on the dumpster, with some twine
And flattened cardboard boxes, too,
For the trash-man, a March gust blew
And overturned what I had built.
The hard wood clattered on the road
And split, exposed its secret load
Of bent and rusted nails, now spilled,
Scattered like seeds, like teeth and bones,
Awaiting tires, the feet of those
Too lost in song to watch their step.
One nail stared up from the cracked wood.
I plucked it out, just as they would
Who returned you to your mother’s lap.
XIV. Jesus Is Laid in the Tomb
They thought of Saul fallen on his sword,
Of Jonah swallowed with his word,
Of John’s head staring from its platter,
As they set his upon the stone.
One said, “If he’s God’s chosen one,
What they have done to him won’t matter.”
“Yes,” said another, “Lazarus
Is fine, and death’s unreal for us.”
Agreed, they lingered at the door.
“But something in me finds it awful,
The way they beat him.” “Was it lawful,
To watch? Or should we have done more?”
Burnt umber stained the linen cloth
Wrapped over face and hands. A moth
Came to rest on his leg, a moment,
And all the sounds of evening pressed
Upon their silence without rest.
“We’ll send the women with some ointment.”
“Perhaps they’ll let us pray outside.”
As each one spoke, he felt he’d lied,
As if there were some final word
They would have said, but could not speak,
That didn’t feign strength when they were weak,
Confessed hope’s paid its price in blood.
Poet James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. His most recent book is The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking (Wiseblood, 2015). You can read and order more of his work on his website.
Artist Daniel Mitsui studied drawing, oil painting, etching, lithography, wood carving, bookbinding and film animation at Dartmouth College. Ink drawing is his specialty, and his meticulously detailed creations, done entirely by hand on paper or vellum, are held in collections worldwide. Since his baptism into the Catholic Church in 2004, most of his artwork has been religious in subject. One of his most prestigious projects was completed in 2011, when the Vatican commissioned him to illustrate a new edition of the Roman Pontifical. You can see more of his artwork, as well as order prints, on his website.
Some of the Stations in Wilson’s cycle have been published elsewhere. Stations I and IV first appeared in The San Diego Reader; VI, XI, and XII in First Things; XIII in America; and XIV in Dappled Things.
Mitsui’s images appear here with his permission. They were drawn on goatskin parchment with fine-tipped pens, calligraphers’ inks applied with brushes, and 23k gold leaf and palladium leaf adhered with gum ammoniac.