Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Fifth Station--Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

"He is despised and rejected ...
a man of suffering and acquainted with grief:
and we hid as it were our faces from him;
he was despised , and we esteemed him not."
--Isaiah 53.3 KJV

When I was growing up I was quite confident about how Jesus looked. Growing up in a tiny mill village in Georgia I went to church faithfully. There were certain things that I knew were just true. In the 1940’s Jesus was white. He was a Southern Baptist—not one of those Yankee Baptists. He spoke with a deep Southern accent and was a Democrat but would soon become a Republican. He looked a little like Roy Rogers or maybe Cary Grant. He was middle class, which we folk that lived in a little cotton-mill village strived for. He was an American through and through and probably would have fought in the war if his number had come up. He was just like us—no wonder we followed him.

Years later it began to dawn on me how wrong my understanding of Jesus was. Slowly like the picture in a Polaroid camera the portrait of Jesus began go look entirely different. And this new picture is what I see when I come to the Fifth Station of the Cross. Jesus had been scourged and beaten. He had been sentenced to death. All night long the guards had ridiculed him. They thrust a heavy cross on his shoulders. Our Lord carried that heavy beam as long as he could—and then stumbled and fell. Slowly, ever so slowly he staggered to his feet and the long journey continued. Standing in the crowd was a woman whom legend named Veronica. Interestingly her name meant true image. So dear Veronica became the central figure in the fifth image in these cross-stations.

Even though her story is really a legend-- the church kept her version of what happened along the via dolorora. She pushed her way through the crowd and with love and pity wiped the wounded, bloody face of Jesus. As she pulled the cloth from his face imprinted on her shawl was the face she had just wiped. The image was bloody, scarred, pain-racked and seemed utterly powerless. This was the image not only Veronica but also the church would carry in its memory.

How far this portrait is from the Jesus of my youth. Here we find that Isaiah’s understanding is true: He really was a man of sorrows acquainted with grief. Even after all these years so many do not see this image of the Christ. Jesus is despised by many today. Atheists, agnostics, and a host of others around the world. Why? So many see him as the Jesus of our culture and our country. They see him as narrow and biased and uncaring as many see his church.

But we must return to the image that Veronica saw and carried home with her that day. She must have placed that precious cloth carefully away. And from time to time she must have smoothed that shawl out and pondered the mystery. So the Jesus of the Fifth Station is the suffering Lord. And he is at one with all the powerless, all the sufferers, all those who have been wronged by life—and even those who have wronged themselves.

We know them well. The ninety-year-old black woman with a thousand wrinkles who says: “Can’t vote. Don’t have one of them cards.” Or maybe that Hispanic student that is forced to go back to Mexico in the middle of her graduate degree. Or perhaps that grandmother in the ghetto that has already buried three grandchildren she raised alone. This Station of the Cross also speaks to the well heeled who carry their quiet desperation wherever they go. The Man of sorrows reaches out wherever there is pain or grief or injustice.

A little twelve-year-old boy would have understood Veronica’s story. He stood on the platform waiting for the subway after school. Some man came by, knocked him down, kicked him hard, spit on him and went running off. Dazed, the boy looked around at all his papers and books and pencils scattered everywhere. Crying and scared—on his knees—he began to put his belongings back into his backpack. A man saw him crying and shaking, and stooped down, gathered all the boy’s scattered objects and put them in the backpack and helped the boy up. As the man started away, the boy asked him, “Mister, Mister are you Jesus?”

Maybe we find the real Jesus as we reach out and touch someone in need. William Temple has said there are material images and mental images in the gospel story. Carry the picture of Veronica and her simple act of love. But in your heart carry your own picture of that wounded, scarred face.

(The contemporary renderings of the Stations of the Cross are the work of artist, Cecile L.K. Martin. They hang in her church, St. Paul the Apostle Church in Seneca, South Carolina. If you are interested in learning more about the artist and her work she can be contacted at:

1 comment:

  1. Takes my breath. Inspiring, thank you for your reflection...