[This article is available in Turkish]

A few years ago, the women’s ministry at my Presbyterian church spent the weekend at a Catholic prayer retreat. The days were full of reflection and prayer, and I spent one afternoon wandering around the forested grounds. It was here that I first encountered the Stations of the Cross.

Each station consisted of a large boulder with a metal placard depicting a part of the Crucifixion story, like Pilate condemning Jesus or Jesus being nailed to the cross. The stones were placed by a bubbly creek, deep within a canopy of oaks and maples, and I initially expected a nice trek through nature and little else. But as I meandered along, the physical markers made the cross—and the whole story of the gospel—resonate within me anew.

Like other practices of embodied worship, including prayer labyrinths and Advent wreaths, the Stations of the Cross help make our faith tangible. They’re a bulwark against Gnosticism and distraction, reminding us that, in Jesus, we follow a God who became flesh (John 1:14), a God we’re to love with our physical bodies as much as our heart, mind, and soul (Mark 12:30). And they’re a reminder, too, of God’s work in and through us as well as the generations of Christians before us who developed and preserved these storied practices.

Scripture is laden with calls to remembrance. “Remember the wonders he has done,” says Psalm 105, while 1 Corinthians 11:24 tells us to practice Communion in “remembrance of me.” The Stations of the Cross give us space to reflect upon that which is always worth remembering: that we are saved by the grace of God through the sacrifice of Christ, and that God is not done with his physical creation but remains active among us, working to redeem and renew the world.

The unrushed physicality of this practice was a boon to my prayer life that afternoon—the Stations are meant to be walked in a slow, meditative manner—and as I wandered, I found my prayers becoming more focused and less abstract. Prayer labyrinths are designed for a similar effect.

Labyrinths look like circular mazes, but they’re walked in two phases. First, we seek the center, physically bringing prayers, pleadings, and questions to God. Then, after reaching the center, we go back to the labyrinth’s edge, preparing to return to the world renewed for God’s service, refocused on the gospel, and drawn out of our distraction-prone minds and emotionally overladen hearts to a truer communion with Christ.

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The Stations and labyrinths don’t ignore our weary bodies, as we may be apt to do. Instead, step by step, they bring us closer to God—not despite our tired legs, broken hearts, and sweaty hands, but by and through them.

Though commonly associated with Catholicism today, both practices are believed to have their roots in the pilgrimages of early Christians, who would retrace the steps of Jesus as he approached the cross. Stations and labyrinths provided a local alternative to difficult, dangerous, and expensive pilgrimages, allowing Christians in the early church and the Middle Ages to experience an embodied journey of prayer and remembrance on an attainable scale.

The basic concept of a labyrinth is even older, dating to the ancient Greek story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Christians repurposed the idea, first using a labyrinth for devotion at an Algerian church in the fourth century. In addition to serving as a miniature pilgrimage, early labyrinths also represented the twists and turns of the Christian journey. They became increasingly popular in early medieval churches through the ninth and tenth centuries, spreading across the European continent in the church’s second millennium.

And prayer labyrinths aren’t the only physical marker of the gospel with roots in a pagan context. The Advent wreath also stems from ancient Greco-Roman culture—where wreaths of laurel and olive branches were worn as crowns to symbolize greatness and wealth—and from Germanic tribes in early medieval Europe, which used evergreen wreaths to symbolize hope for spring.

The church found new and better uses for these wreaths. Their evergreen fronds were made to symbolize both eternal life through Christ and the everlasting nature of God. Red berries and prickly leaves from holly trees served as a reminder of the blood of Jesus and his painful crown of thorns.

Though less ancient a tradition, Advent candles encourage meditation and remembrance, much like the patient and progressive Stations of the Cross. Often displayed on or near the Advent wreath and slowly lit in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the candles remind us of the “already but not yet” tension our faith holds so dear. We rejoice as we move closer to Advent—yet we are keenly aware of the pain and sorrow that fills this world, and we remember with hope that Jesus will come again.

The gospel is a marvelous picture of redemption. But we are easily sidetracked, forgetful of the wonder in the stories, verses, and sermons we know so well. These physical reminders of our faith can bring us back to attention, making space for reflection and embodiment, allowing us to grasp the beauty of the gospel once again, step by step, turn by turn, candle by candle.

Rabekah Henderson is a writer covering faith, architecture, and the built world around us. She lives in Raleigh, NC, and has been featured in Mere Orthodoxy, Common Good, and Dwell.