From: The Way of the Cross
The story of Veronica, whose act of compassion left the wounded face of Jesus imprinted on the veil with which she wiped his bleeding face, is a mixture of tradition, legend, and devotions that developed over the centuries from one end of Europe to another.
There is no ascertainable historical accuracy attached to any of the tellings, let alone to any of the “veils” themselves, but there is a great deal of spiritual truth to be recognized here. The truth is that nothing we do for the suffering other ever goes unnoticed or unnoted. The kindness we bring to great moments of pain and grief marks us and lasts forever not only in the heart of the person whose pain we assuage but in our own soul as well.
The woman Veronica, unlike Simon, is said to have stepped out of the crowd voluntarily as Jesus tumbled by under the weight of the cross in order to wipe the sweat and grim from his eyes. That the image of the face of Jesus remained on the veil she used to do it endures from one century to the next without a single shred of data to support the story. And yet, clearly, it is not the historicity of the story that counts after all these centuries.
Veronica has become part of the universal spiritual psyche in the Stations of the Cross because the witness of Veronica to the power of witness stands for all to see. What does Veronica do? Not much. What does Veronica mean to the spirit of the stations? Close to everything.
Here is a woman who will not allow the story of the journey to Calvary to be romanticized, to go untold, to be overlooked or forgotten. The image on the veil remains forever a reminder of the unmitigated horror of which injustice is capable.
The woman’s veil stands as mute witness to the depths of the demonic present in the human condition once we permit it to be unleashed. The veil remains a witness to the crime of all times – the destruction of goodness at the center of us, in us, around us forever.
Compassion and witness take the stage of our hearts here. Her act of compassion, we know, puts us to shame. How often do we stop to mend the broken in the streets? Her unblinking witness puts us on notice: for the sake of what life lesson would we draw attention to ourselves? For the sake of the ongoing valor of the world, to what kind of care would be bend our own lives so that the world would not forget? Stolid in her performance, the woman stares into the heart of humanity, challenging us to justify such an act as this senseless, unjustified act of brutal violence. Neither can be erased. Not the brutality, not the courageous compassion. Both of them prod our conscience and break our hearts forever.
In Veronica’s mild, womanly way there is embedded a striking call to authenticity, to being what we are meant to be, to doing what must obviously be done no matter who approves, no matter who thinks this is neither the place nor the time. It takes the breath away to imagine stepping out in the middle of a street gang to wash the face of a beaten boy. It takes an inner strength beyond the average level of integrity to speak up for women in a crowd of conservative churchmen. It takes a kind of spiritual insanity to question the corporate practices everyone else takes for granted at the cocktail party.
But it is precisely that kind of commitment Veronica takes for granted. She haunts us with it. She pursues us with it. She insists on it. Nowhere are we to allow the Jesus figures of our day, the poor and the oppressed, to suffer where we are. It is a mandate more demanding than sinlessness.
The sixth station of the cross calls us to realize that compassion is the counterpart of justice. To fail to practice mercy in the presence of injustice is to neglect half the face of God. Jesus does not resist the journey to the cross but he does respond most to the act of comfort in the midst of oppression.
It is not enough, we learn here, to harbor a sense of righteous anger when the poor are oppressed. It is necessary to reach down and lift them from the pit of their despair. It’s a false zeal that focuses on the addiction but ignores the addict, that calls others to family values but gives no child beyond our own a helping hand, that deplores discrimination but avoids gays and lesbians. The plight of Jesus here is a clear model for us: Justice punishes criminals, yes, but mercy refuses to ignore their needs. Justice seeks the vision but mercy makes it real. Justice follows the ideal but mercy recognizes the weakness in ourselves and so holds the weaknesses of others in a tender hand.
Veronica walked out of the crowd of curious onlookers and horrified spectators and bloodthirsty zealots and performed a work of mercy, no questions asked, no judgments rendered. And for her trouble, she left, tradition tells us, with an image of the face of Jesus on the very towel she used to give him relief.
The meaning is obvious. Every time we make life physically better for someone else, the face of Jesus becomes clearer and clearer in us. We become more of what we are meant to be. We rise up out of a petty past and become a clearer, cleaner, brighter picture of the face of Jesus ourselves.
The question with which the sixth station confronts us is, Who is there, whose life you deplore, that you have reached out to help?
The image that Veronica takes away on her veil is an image of serenity, of soulful repose in the midst of human chaos. The veil does not scream at us. It does not sob. It does nothing to draw attention to itself. Instead, in its steadiness it draws attention only to us, to those who see it, to challenge us. You, the veil says, you. Will you yourself ever do anything for those who live in the centrifuge of violence and deprivation, to raise them up, to give them hope, to stop the pain they breathe?