“Brave but trembling came the woman,” the small congregation sang. “None but she would flaunt the Roman; moved by love beyond her fear.”
Along with my fellow parishioners, I was praying the Stations of the Cross, a devotion we practiced every Wednesday night during Lent. On this particular evening, I found myself fascinated by the image of St. Veronica, who is commemorated in the Sixth Station. According to tradition, this otherwise unknown woman pushed through the crowd lining the road to Golgotha and wiped Christ’s bloodied face with her veil.
And, with a weary heart, I had to ask myself: Why?
In my mind, I knew the “correct” answer — love, reverence, compassion, decency. Surely the sight of the Lord being brutalized under the combined fists of Rome and the religious leaders would stir the soul. But on that particular Wednesday, having read a lunchtime’s worth of somber news stories, I wondered if anyone, myself included, really had Veronica’s courage in the face of overwhelming suffering.
For over a year, thousands of refugees had been streaming across frigid seas, only to be refused sanctuary by equally cold hearts. The leaders of the world’s most powerful nations were faltering in their response to the global crisis. Several were closing their borders, others were straining to provide aid as their constituents grew resentful.
Religious extremists and political factionists relentlessly slaughtered civilians for senseless agendas. Countless children were living in filth and deprivation while corporate executives reaped incomprehensible wages.
The local news was little better. Addiction, violence, scandal and poverty dominated the headlines.
“What can one person do?” The despairing question seemed to echo in every conversation, followed by a shrug of defeat. “I just try to be a good person. I’ll say a prayer, but I can’t change the world.”
Veronica neither shrugged nor shirked. In fact, as Archbishop Giancarlo Maria Bregantini observed in his meditations on the Via Crucis, Veronica saw in Christ’s battered face “all our neighbors who need to be consoled with a tender touch, and … all those who, in our own day, receive neither practical assistance nor the warmth of compassion.”
If we balk at our inadequacy in meeting the needs of those who suffer, we are actually guilty of pride. Before he offered his body as the living bread, Jesus challenged his disciples to feed a multitude with a handful of loaves and fishes. The disciples protested, having already asked Jesus to dismiss the hungry and frustrating crowd.
“Five loaves and two fish are all we have here,” they argued. Jesus was undaunted. “Bring them here to me,” he commanded (Matthew 14:17, 18), and loaf by loaf, fish by fish, the disciples fed over 5,000. Every scrap the disciples tossed into the 12 baskets of leftovers humbled their arrogant arithmetic; five loaves and two fish added up to much more in the hands of Jesus.
In his Palm Sunday homily, Pope Francis stressed Christ’s humility, which finds its profoundest expression in the cross. “The Lord has not saved us by his triumphal entry or by means of powerful miracles,” the pope declared. Rather, we are redeemed by “a love which bends down to us.”
The love that stoops to embrace us in turn raises us from doubt and fear. Pope Francis reminds us that having experienced God’s “surprising tenderness … we are called to choose his way: the way of service, of giving, of forgetfulness of ourselves.”
It was this very way of service that Mother Teresa, who will be canonized in September, embodied. Like Veronica, she did not run from the agony of those she served, nor did she bemoan her insufficiency. Instead, she quietly ministered to Christ as she found him in each soul, at times able to give no more than a kind look or word to those who lay dying in the streets of Kolkata.
After he left Veronica, Jesus went on to fall in the Seventh Station, and again in the Ninth. More spittle, more blood, more tears marred his sacred face, mere seconds after this brave woman had cleansed it. From her position, Veronica could see that the hill on which Jesus would be crucified was still a long and painful way off.
Still, she offered her veil, perhaps her only one, knowing full well that while it could never dry all the world’s tears or dress all the world’s wounds, it could in that moment touch and bless the very face of Christ.
Gina Christian is a writer in Philadelphia and a member of St. William Parish.