Lenten Series: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

Following is the sixth in a seven-part Lenten series featuring women from the New Testament. While Veronica doesn’t appear in any of the Gospels, she’s as familiar to any "cradle Catholic" as Mary and Martha, or any of our other old friends, the people we’ve met through the Scriptures. Veronica’s claim to fame is that she’s forever imbedded in our consciousness as a vivid and memorable part of the Stations of the Cross, the sixth station: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. We know her name probably wasn’t Veronica, since that name actually means "true icon." And perhaps the little incident that Veronica is famous for never happened. Perhaps "Veronica" never really existed. But we can still learn something from her and the story can still be a blessing to us. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from fictional characters. I learned a great deal about parenting my adult children from Pearl Tull, the heroine of Anne Tyler’s "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." You might not like Pearl, but you can’t help loving her, and learning from her (often unorthodox) parenting techniques. Veronica’s appearance on the pages of history is a very short one. She didn’t even have her requisite 10 minutes of fame. The basic story is this: Veronica was one of the hundreds of people, just a face in the crowd, as Jesus passed, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, carrying his cross on the way to Golgatha. Veronica, "moved with pity," stepped out of the crowd, and wiped his face of its sweat and blood. The legend tells us that when Veronica returned home, she realized a mirror image of Christ’s face was imprinted on the cloth. It’s a beautiful little story, and one that is still told and re-told in many parts of the world, especially in Latin American countries. Let’s read and meditate on Veronica as she’s given to us in the lovely old Stations by St. Alphonsus Liguori (still the sentimental favorite): "Consider how a holy woman named Veronica, seeing Jesus so afflicted, and His face bathed in sweat and blood, presented him with a towel, with which He wiped His adorable face, leaving on it the impression of His holy countenance." What can the story of Veronica tell us? First of all it’s a very visual reminder that the entire crucifixion, from the initial arrest and scourging to the awful climax on a rocky hill, was a bloody horror. Today, too often, our crucifixes are sanitized and air-brushed. In fact, the stations of the cross are almost gone from our collective Catholic psyche, dismissed as part of the "pre-" church. Our emphasis is on the Risen Christ, the God of Easter Sunday. And there is good in that. But at the same time, there is no Easter without the crucifixion. And the crucifixion was a death – a bloody, painful, ugly death. Veronica reminds us that it was no small thing, this sacrifice the Son of God made, and it’s not to be taken lightly. The crucifixion has been a pivotal point for meditation in the prayer life of many saints. Catherine of Siena reminds us in vivid images that Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate act of love; when Christ stretched out his hands and died he "bridged" the chasm between heaven and earth and gained for us the right to everlasting life. When we read Scriptures, or when we meditate on the various aspects of Christ’s life, it’s all too easy to skip past the hard parts, the painful parts. We go right from the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes to the Christ in bright garments on Easter morn. How ironic that we can’t stomach the bloody reality of the crucifixion when we are transfixed and overwhelmed by blood and guts on our television news every night, and when our movie screens are virtually awash in blood every day of the week. And so we have Veronica. A person of compassion, a person who was ready to take a risk to comfort the bloody, dying man-God. And she was generously rewarded. It’s Holy Week. The week we commemorate the completion and fulfillment of a sacrificial life, a life that could not have been completed and fulfilled without the ultimate sacrifice. My prayer this week will be to make myself totally present to him each day, to be with him, moment by moment, in the events that led to that "infamous death." I pray to be one with him totally, without fear, without revulsion, without dismissing any part the ultimate love story while at the same time aware of the role I play in his suffering. Let’s close with the words that ended each station of St Alphonus: "I repent of ever having offended thee. Never permit me to offend thee again. Grant that I may love thee always and then do with me what thou wilt." Copyright ?1998 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

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