VI. Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
“We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you;
Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
“Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirst and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
The opportunity for us to wipe the face of Jesus surrounds us daily, but we often fail to recognise it. Jesus lives in all people, including us.
Loving Jesus, help us to see your face in all of your people. Remind us that all people are our brothers and sisters, one people created by the one God.
—Prayer by Theresa Sherman,Wednesday, 28 March 18
This morning we have a look at a woman whose voice was silenced for a large portion of the historic worldwide church during the Protestant movement 400 years or so ago. When the radical reformers reacted to the excesses of Roman Catholicism, they rejected any symbolism in the Catholic Church including the iconic Stations of the Cross. Many of you are familiar with Stations of the Cross now, but for 400 years Baptists had abandoned it.
One of the stations is an enigmatic station Number 6, where Veronica wipes the face of Jesus. The first question that a good Protestant Baptist might ask is “What the heck? Where did she come from?”, as they flick through their leather-bound heavily highlighted NIV Life Application Bible. And it’s a good question. She doesn’t appear in the Gospel narratives. In fact, Veronica is not mentioned in scripture at all.
So who is this saint? This woman who became patron saint of laundry workers and photographers? This woman who sneaks in quickly out of nowhere, wipes the face of Jesus as he is stumbling toward his death. And that it is claimed she miraculously took an imprint of Jesus’s face on the cloth?
Why is she made a saint when there is little evidence of this event taking place—except for a cloth with an image of a face on it? Sorry, except for the possibility of one of six cloths with a face imprinted on them being the very cloth she used?
Trying to find historical evidence for her is very difficult and relies on sources that are well outside what many historians would regard as reliable historical books.
Her first appearance is in an obscure book called the Acts of Pilate or the Gospel of Nicodemus that dates to around the 3rd or 4th century. It’s a book about the trial of Jesus and we hear the following statement:
And a certain woman named Bernice (Beronice Copt., Veronica Lat.) crying out from afar off said: I had an issue of blood and touched the hem of his garment, and the flowing of my blood was stayed which I had twelve years.
The Jews say: We have a law that a woman shall not come to give testimony.
—The Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate
The appalling cultural misogyny aside, there’s nothing mentioned of the veil, though we do find a name of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ clothing in the Gospels in Luke 8.
In 680 A.D. in the writing called The Avenging of the Saviour, also called The Cure of the Emperor Tiberius, a connection is made where Veronica is both this bleeding woman healed by Jesus’ robes and the one who later wiped his face.
This story is about healing the emperor Tiberius from what is thought to have been leprosy. He’d caught wind of this image of the Christ on a cloth and was seeking it for healing.
“Then they made a search with great diligence to seek the portrait of the Lord; and the found a woman named Veronica who had the portrait of the Lord. Then the Emperor Tiberius said to Velosianus: How hast thou it?”
The story goes on to say that:
“Velosianus spread out the cloth of gold on which the portrait of the Lord had been imprinted. The Emperor Tiberius saw it...and his flesh was cleansed ...and all the blind, the lepers, the lame, the dumb, the deaf and those possessed by various diseases, who were there present, were healed and cured and cleansed.”
—The Avenging of the Saviour
Around the 11th century a couple of pilgrims reported separately that they’d seen Veronica’s veil at St Peters in Rome and it’s from this moment that the story, legend or myth, whatever you want to call it, took root and became part of the canon of the Stations of the Cross.
I suspect it also provides some kind of historical precedent for our TV faith healers requesting people’s handkerchiefs to pray over.
These relics and artefacts are a big deal for the early church as they held on to concrete connections to the story of Jesus. I suspect it could be said that in the same way that many churches today view the ‘worship time’ as essential, so too were these images. Most people were illiterate and needed the visuals for the story, hence the stations of the cross.
Relics developed a reputation for possessing supernatural power. There are stories of the Veil of Veronica being held up before armies going into battle.
Travelling to see the veil would bestow indulgences upon the faithful pilgrim, which was a spiritual currency with which you could trade years off your time in purgatory for example.
So we end up with a trifecta of evidence. The tradition around Veronica has taken the similarity of the bleeding face of Jesus on cloth, with this woman being healed from bleeding by touching Jesus cloth plus the fact that her name is a latin portmanteau of Vera meaning true and Icona meaning image. This seemed to be evidence enough have formed a basis for the story and its variants we have today.
I guess you want to see what it looks like. Here’s one of the veils that is talked about. And then a close up.
One thing that I became very aware of when I was exploring France and Spain last year was that I’m very protestant. I get frustrated with legend and exaggeration. I’m very conditioned by rationalism and the need for sources to be verified. I’m steeped in the idea that if it can’t be backed up by anything other than hearsay, then it didn’t happen. Of course, a much more postmodern reading of history accepts that all history is hearsay in some form or another.
But as is usual, we found other things to call holy and sacred. I grew up not being able to play tennis on Sundays. It wasn’t ’til I went to a church on the North Shore that I let that go.
Historically Baptists believe that the pulpit is a place for the proclamation of Christ, exposition of scriptures and presentation of ‘Truth’. We can see how the excesses of that understanding, when written in stone and not on the heart, quite well in the Southern Baptists of the USA.
We replace our icons with other icons, they’re just not visible and in the imagination. Many of us have left the churches where we have been told we are suppressing the Holy Spirit by being skeptical of the charismatic stuff we saw. In fact, I got a letter from some colleagues who invited me to a retreat, only if I was into it though, otherwise I’d be bringing a ‘lack of faith’ into their context and end up suppressing the power of God’s ministry.
We all have sacred icons in our imaginations: the way church should be, how God is, how Jesus does stuff, what the Holy Spirit is about. We all have sacred icons in our imaginations. How we should pray, or live, or be loving.
We all have our sacred icons.
God speaks to different contexts and I reckon charges them with being rigorous in the defence of their understanding. It is not a broad sweeping pluralism of agnosticism either, but a robust concern for seeking God. Jesus is notably vague/not vague about the kingdom of heaven.
We get guidance on the attitude or settings of the Kingdom of Heaven. But not a pragmatic list of instructions. This leaves us a degree of flexibility around how it is structured and works itself into life and community.
I’m a heretic for saying this, truly I am, but I really am thinking that God may call different people’s in different contexts to do things that are inconsistent with each other.
Isolation is what mitigates this into robust intention.
All this is to say that, it is good to be open to the possibilities that lie outside of our understanding. But these are not blind acceptance, but a robust engagement. There should be scrutiny, but not the kind that leads to ego-driven outrage. I think if we are honest, outrage is decidedly not a kingdom of heaven value when it is about ego and inaction.
So with my critical faculties still intact, I can take the story of Veronica and mull at will.
The fact we have this story, still leaves me meh on one level. But on another level, there’s something very, very cool going on here and I want to turn our attention to that now.
Let’s go back to last weeks’ talk where I suggested that we identify with the wrong people in Scripture, that we are the crowd not the heroes. We are the hearers not the disciples. We are the nameless multitude, or at best a nameless ‘bit’ character in the great narrative of scripture.
What I really like about the story of Veronica is that she is necessary for people like you and me. She provides a point of identification that resonates strongly for us. She comes out of nowhere, is a nobody, is driven by compassion to serve the Christ in a very humble way and then recedes into the background.
I would like to tell you again of the day that Jesus carried his cross to the place of death outside the city walls.
He had just left Pilate’s courtyard where he was sold out to popular opinion, bullied by machismo of the palace guard ‘boys just being boys’. Whipped, beaten and with a crown made of thorns pressed into his head. This man who commanded the attention of 10,000 people at a time, who had performed miracles and whose only charge levelled against him was challenging the authority of Caesar and religion for the sake of humanity.
He was carrying the beam of his cross whichever way he could. And the cross bar was heavy. Really heavy and the place he was going was around 1km with the only respite being that it was a downhill walk. The beam would have been at least a sack of potatoes worth of weight.
So this man is coming along this road, blood coursing down his head from the crown and open wounds around his eye. Don’t forget the rawness of his back after being whipped. Last week I suggested the streets were lined with a crowd that remained silence except for the occasional spitting sound, whipping sound and the wooden beam hitting the stones as Jesus dropped it or dragged it.
Veronica saw this. She saw every feeble step of the slow crawl of suffering. An agonising plod of one foot in front of the other in front of a crowd, all stirred up by outrage at this phoney.
Veronica saw the scapegoat that Jesus had become in a very real sense as he passed by looks that wanted to kill and were damn well going to.
For many of us it could be the way we feel about Trump. We could substitute Trump or Ardern in there. In fact do that. Trump or Ardern have just received their comeuppance, had been judged and condemned by the outrage of the popular vote. Watch them, your political nemesis.
Put the worst of the worst in the place of Jesus and feel like one of the crowd. Who is it that you hate? Crucify them. Watch them walk to death. The one you want to hurt, put the cross beam on their back and take delight in every stumble they make on the way to Golgotha. Claim justice is being served, vindicate yourself and stand as judge and executioner—because dammit you are right and everyone else is right.
All the rage and disgust you feel toward that person is embodied in this Jesus. This is the Christ in Veronica’s story.
And in spite of the crowd, in the danger of the guards, she stepped across that imaginary line that we know separates the crowd from the parade. She stepped in and the procession came to a halt.
She paused for a moment. Glanced at the guards and those around her just for a second. Just enough to see their disapproving surprise and she hurried to Jesus to wipe his face.
Why? To help him see? To recover the humanity of his face? Maybe the cloth was dipped in water to soothe the sores?
What a futile act whichever way we want to paint it. The blood would return, as with the pain. In fact, nothing had changed at all—it was a fleeting respite.
And for that she risked the detached violence of the guards as they shoved her to one side with a cuss. For that she risked isolation from the rest of the community because her outrage didn’t match theirs.
Yes. Veronica did the unthinkable. She went to the cursed and showed kindness. And it didn’t change a damn thing in the course of events. I reckon she knew that at one level but put it to one side.
She reached out in kindness to the one cursed by popular opinion. She reached out in kindness to the one who had become the object upon which outrage and dissatisfaction, hate and disappointment, fear and disempowerment had been placed by thousands of people.
Her simple act was the prophetic voice of God to the crowd that day. Deaf as they were to hear it, but those in proximity have the image of Christ’s cleaned face and one unharmed eye looking upon Veronica with gratitude, embedded in their minds.
In the midst of the chaos of evil, simple and gentle ordered chaos still found a voice, not in the powerful, but in a nobody, just like you and me.