This week in our evening service talks we have been looking at some of the less well-known people who were there during Jesus’ passion. I chose to preach about St Veronica.
I can hear the evangelicals among you gasping that I chose to preach on a person who is not even found in scripture! The only point at which most of us meet Veronica is through the Stations of the Cross – she is the sixth. However, the more I explored this character, the more moved I became. I found the wikipedia page very helpful and also this beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite. The Isaiah 50:4-9a reading set for Wednesday night (when I preached) also fit beautifully into the theme.
Veronica is kind of like an every-woman figure. There are so many unnamed women in the bible and the passion scenes are crowded with women – the men noticeably absent. So Veronica represents so much to do with the ministry of Jesus. As I was preparing my sermon I was struck by what an intimate act wiping another’s face is – the only person really that has ever done that for me is my mother. I was also struck by the fact that the last gentle intimate touch Jesus received before his arrest was the kiss of betrayal from Judas – the next gentle hands Jesus feels are from Veronica, stepping forward to courageously touch the bloody victim – just as Jesus had radically touched the unclean throughout his ministry.
Here is the text of my sermon:
There is a huge crowd, everyone pressing around Jesus, wanting to get near. A woman is on the edge of the crowd, slowly working her way to the centre, using her practised elbows to move forwards in the crush of bodies. If only I could just touch the hem of his garment, that would be enough, she thinks, she surges forward and grasps the tassels on the edge of Jesus’ outer garment. A few more steps and then he stops. The woman turns away, she got what she wanted, just a touch, that was all she needed.
Another day, this time in Jerusalem, there is a huge crowd, everyone pressing around Jesus, following his stumbling path through the streets, trying to steer clear of the brutal soldiers and their whips. Men jostle and see who can spit so that it lands on Jesus’ face. His face is ugly with pain and covered in filth, blood, sweat and phlegm. A sight people are turning away from, averting their gaze. A woman is on the edge of the crowd, slowly working her way closer. If only I could just touch him. If only I could just wipe away that filth from his face, as a mother would from their child’s face. If only I could just touch. That would be enough, she thinks.
Jesus had once removed this woman’s shame, he had healed her of her bleeding disease, restoring her body and soul back into her community. It was shameful for a woman to remove her headscarf in public but this time she is compelled, she removes it so that she can wipe away all that filth, all that anger thrown at Jesus’ face, wipe away that kiss of betrayal, wipe away the spit of contempt. An intimate act of compassion to wipe away the intimate kiss of betrayal in Jesus’ last hours.
We just heard from the book of Isaiah a description of the face of the suffering servant: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. Later in Isaiah, the prophet says ‘as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised’. The face of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion was a face one would turn away from. Blood would be pouring from the marks the thorns had made in his brow down his face, mingling with his tears of pain and with sweat. And then there was the spitting of the crowd, men jostling to get a hit. And if you have ever been spat at, you know that the first instinct is to wipe it away. But what can Jesus do? His hands are strapped to the heavy cross bar. Truly a face to turn away from, covered in filth, ugly with pain. And legend has it that a woman comes, named Berenice in Greek but Veronica in Latin, and she takes off her veil and wipes Jesus’ face with it, the face everyone else is turning away from. An astonishingly intimate act, maybe even more intimate than Mary of Bethany wiping Jesus feet with her hair as this act is out in the open, surrounded by a baying crowd. The legend says that this woman, Veronica, came away with an image of Christ on her veil. The name Veronica in Latin means ‘true image’. She bears the image of Christ. This woman with two names, Berenice, meaning bearer of victory, and Veronica meaning ‘true image’ – she carries with her the true image of Christ victorious, the image of the crucified Christ by whom we are made whole, by whose wounds we are healed. A small, but beautiful and memorable act of mercy – not recorded in the gospels, but that has captured the hearts of Christians down the centuries.
Veronica is every person who has ever been on the edge, on the outside, made to feel ashamed – these are the people who bear the image of Christ, who have received from Christ and carry his grace and mercy with them wherever they go. Veronica demonstrates in a small but significant act of mercy what Christ came to do – the wiping away of sin and betrayal, the restoring and making whole of the broken, and how we each carry with us the true image of Christ. May we be able to find the true image of Christ in the face of suffering, in the faces of those around us, in the faces of those from whom we would avert our gaze. We stop on our journey to Golgotha to gaze at the face of Jesus.