Every year on the evening of Good Friday, after presiding at the celebration of the Lord's Passion in St. Peter's Basilica, Pope John Paul heads across town to the ancient Coliseum to lead worshipers in praying the Stations of the Cross. Flanked by torchbearers he makes his way slowly along the 14 stations, often braving unpleasant weather.
The Way of the Cross, or Via Crucis, originated as a means of imitating pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land to visit the places where Christ worked, taught and suffered.
It is noteworthy that all those remembered in the Way of the Cross as reaching out to Christ and consoling him in the hour of his passion were women. Mary his mother (4th station), Veronica (6th station), and the holy women of Jerusalem (8th station) offered Christ their comfort and stood by him in his suffering. Simon of Cyrene also came to Jesus' assistance, but the Gospel tells us he was conscripted into service.
In this simple devotion we perceive an instance of what Pope John Paul calls the “feminine genius.” In his 1988 apostolic letter On the Dignity and Vocation of Women, the Holy Father wrote that the “moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way” (30). He adds in his 1995 Letter to Women: “Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts.” And not only do they see others in their greatness and limitations, they also “try to go out to them and help them” (12).
The 6th station illustrates this point. “Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus” is one of the least historically tenable of the stations, but one of the most evocative. It recalls the stirring scene of a woman emerging from the crowds of onlookers that lined Jesus' path as he carried his cross from the Roman Praetorium towards Golgotha. According to tradition, the woman produced a cloth and wiped Jesus' face. On withdrawing the cloth she found it marked with an image of Christ's features.
Who was this woman? Was she aware that this condemned criminal was Jesus of Nazareth? Had he perhaps raised her own son from the dead, or cured her daughter's leprosy? Had she herself been healed, or exorcised or fed with loaves multiplied on the hillside? Had she listened to Jesus' preaching on God's mercy or the coming of the Kingdom and become convinced that he was indeed the Messiah, the one who was to come into the world? Or was she merely moved to compassion at the sight of a fellow human being who struggled along bearing the instrument of his own torture?
The encounter between Jesus and Veronica, like other moments commemorated in the Way of the Cross such as Jesus' three falls, appears nowhere in the Gospel accounts, which has led many to question its historicity. Yet beyond its mere materiality, this simple scene conveys a deep truth central to Christianity. Jesus taught that every good deed done to any human person, even the “least” (the poorest, least pleasant, least attractive, least virtuous), he considers as done to himself.
As Jesus painfully labored under the weight of the cross, he hardly appeared to be the same man who had preached with such assurance and authority in the Jewish synagogues, calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and expelled demons from the possessed. His face, swollen from the soldiers' blows and masked with dirt, blood, spittle, and sweat, was disfigured “beyond human semblance” (Isaiah 52:14). Yet even in this wretchedness a woman recognized human dignity, and in her act of mercy discovered the Son of God.
At times we easily discover Jesus in our neighbor. Some people so reflect his goodness and humility, his holiness and warmth, that we naturally respond to them in like manner. Other times mud and spittle disfigure Jesus' face, and our neighbor's real or apparent defects conceal his presence — but he is there. He is always there, and we need to find him.
Compassion is not the exclusive domain of women, and women hold no patent on mercy. Christ's words “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) are addressed to men and women alike. But in a world marked by self-absorption and indifference to God and neighbor, we look to the “feminine genius” to show us the way.
Father Thomas Williams is author of
Building on Solid Ground.