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In reviewing the Stations of the Cross, I was surprised to learn that stations 3, 7, and 9—descriptions of three times Jesus fell under the weight of the cross he carried—are in fact not based on scripture.

I also learned (here) that some German and Dutch Catholics historically observed SEVEN falls, often citing as prophesy Proverbs 24:16: “though the just fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble from only one mishap.”

Do Catholics have any historical, traditional, or scriptural basis—or any rationale—for claiming that Jesus fell under the weight of his own cross on the way to Calvary?

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What is the basis for Catholics believing Jesus fell three times (or seven) on his journey to Calvary?

It is a tradition that many uphold. However there is in fact no historical way of knowing.

For some, like myself, it is believed that Mary, the Mother of Jesus started this tradition of the Stations of the Cross as such! The actual number of stations seems to be of no historical value or meaning. The actual number of times Jesus fell during his Passion is equally unknown. To day the traditional number of falls is three (3).

The number of three corresponding to the number of temptations Our Lord suffered while fasting in the desert. This is simply just the modern traditional number.

According to Blessed Catherine Emmerich, Our Lord fell seven (7) times while carrying his Cross to Golgotha. Each one of these falls corresponds to one of the seven deadly sins that send souls to hell.

In the Visions of Catherine Emmerich, we read that the Virgin Mary made the Stations of the Cross each while living in Ephesus.

We find the Stations of the Cross in just about every Catholic Church. Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross has been a popular Catholic devotion from the earliest of times. It is especially popular during the season of Lent. Did you know that the first Stations of the Cross were made by the Blessed Virgin Mary and that what we have today followed the pattern that she set up 2000 years ago? Our earliest traditions tell us that St. John took the Blessed Virgin Mary out of Jerusalem to Ephesus to protect her from the dangers in Jerusalem. Tradition tells us that Mary, after Jesus’ ascension used to walk the path that He had walked on His way to the Cross. When she moved out of Jerusalem she could no longer walk on that very path.

St. John built for her a House on a hill just outside of Ephesus (modern day Turkey). I was fortunate to be able to visit that home and it was an earthshaking spiritual experience for me. When Mary lived there she decided to walk out a path remembering the way of the cross that Jesus and she walked in Jerusalem. She set up stones and markings on trees to commemorate Jesus’ walk. Mary would walk along that path with its Stations of the Cross just like she had walked it on the actual streets that Jesus had walked. It was a special devotion for her.

One of the Church’s modern mystics and visionaries was Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich who was born in 1774 and died in 1824. She had numerous visions of Jesus and Mary and in her writings she recalled her visions, “Behind the house, at a little distance up the hill, the Blessed Virgin had made a kind of Way of the Cross. When she was living in Jerusalem, she had never failed, ever since Our Lord’s death, to follow His path to Calvary with tears of compassion. She had paced out and measured all the distances between the Stations of that Via Crucis, and her love for her Son made her unable to live without this constant contemplation of His sufferings. Soon after her arrival at her new home [in Ephesus] I saw her every day climbing part of the way up the hill behind her house to carry out this devotion. At first she went by herself, measuring the number of steps, so often counted by her, which separated the places of Our Lord’s different sufferings. At each of these places she put up a stone, or, if there was already a tree there, she made a mark upon it. The way led into a wood, and upon a hill in this wood she had marked the place of Calvary, and the grave of Christ in a little cave in another hill. After she had marked this Way of the Cross with twelve Stations, she went there with her maidservant in quiet meditation: at each Station they sat down and renewed the mystery of its significance in their hearts, praising the Lord for His love with tears of compassion. Afterwards she arranged the Stations better, and I saw her inscribing on the stones the meaning of each Station, the number of paces and so forth. I saw, too, that she cleaned out the cave of the Holy Sepulcher and made it a place for prayer. At that time I saw no picture and no fixed cross to designate the Stations, nothing but plain memorial stones with inscriptions, but afterwards, as the result of constant visits and attention, I saw the place becoming increasingly beautiful and easy of approach. After the Blessed Virgin’s death I saw this Way of the Cross being visited by Christians, who threw themselves down and kissed the ground.” - Mary’s House, Stations of the Cross and Visions

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the popularity of this devotion really became popular in the 17th century onwards.

The erection and use of the Stations did not become at all general before the end of the seventeenth century, but they are now to be found in almost every church. Formerly their number varied considerably in different places but fourteen are now prescribed by authority.

The object of the Stations is to help the faithful to make in spirit, as it were, a pilgrimage to the chief scenes of Christ's sufferings and death, and this has become one of the most popular of Catholic devotions. It is carried out by passing from Station to Station, with certain prayers at each and devout meditation on the various incidents in turn. It is very usual, when the devotion is performed publicly, to sing a stanza of the "Stabat Mater" while passing from one Station to the next.

With regard to the number of Stations it is not at all easy to determine how this came to be fixed at fourteen, for it seems to have varied considerably at different times and places.

When Romanet Boffin visited Jerusalem in 1515 for the purpose of obtaining correct details for his set of Stations at Romans, two friars there told him that there ought to be thirty-one in all, but in the manuals of devotion subsequently issued for the use of those visiting these Stations they are given variously as nineteen, twenty-five, and thirty-seven, so it seems that even in the same place the number was not determined very definitely.

After being severely flagellated by their executioners, it is not surprising that the condemned fell while being lead to the place of their execution. The true surprise would have been in the fact they did not fall. Some prisoners are known to have died while being scourged.

Naturally, the Gospels do not write about every single detail of Christ’s Passion. The majority of his Apostles fled in fear. Only St. John, Mary the Mother of Jesus and a few friends of the Lord were there at his death.

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In biblical terminology, the numbers three and seven have significant connotations. Three signifies completeness, like the number of days spent by Jonah within the belly of the whale and by Jesus in the tomb, and then the number of times Peter disclaimed the Lord, who is turn asked the former to profess his love. Seven on the other hand signifies infinity, like the seven evil spirits said to have been taken out of Mary Magdalene, and the ' seven times seven formula ' of forgiveness prescribed by the Lord. That would mean Jesus would have fallen many times on his way to Calvary, but the number has been limited to three, as a symbolic representation and with a view to brevity.

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    “That would mean Jesus would have fallen many times on his way to Calvary” while I can certainly admit this is plausible, this reasoning, nor the numerical symbolism can lead me to conclude something happened that isn’t mentioned in the Gospels. Ken Graham’s answer, that it is a long held tradition supposedly going back to Mary, at least gives an reason people might believe Jesus actually stumbled.
    – Katechonic
    Apr 16, 2022 at 5:19
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    Thanks, Katechonic. I was only answering to the 'rationale ' component of your question. Apr 16, 2022 at 5:32

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