I’m not the kind of Baptist minister who has ever really explored the Stations of the Cross, so I’d never even heard of the legendary St Veronica until I was recently invited to reflect on the 6th Station of the Cross, which honours her story. Kate got in on the act and this has led us both to reflect on some of those ‘Good Friday’ moments here, with you.
Spoiler alert… we felt this deserved a slightly longer blog than usual!
Many artists depict Veronica wiping Jesus’ face with her veil. She is surrounded by 2 or 3 members of the crowd and in one particular image a member of the crowd has his hand firmly on her shoulder. Behind Jesus we often see a man who is presumably, Simon of Cyrene ‘helping’ to carry the cross, sometimes with children accompanying him. And alongside Simon, stands a Roman soldier with spear in hand.
We suspect that the actual scene was far more chaotic than the simplicity of many artistic portrayals. Perhaps not unlike the reporting of Coronavirus in which our media regularly neglects the impact on refugees, the persecuted, the abused (often women and children), the neglected and the poor. We also imagine the scene to be far more ethnically and culturally diverse than we see in most artist depictions. Since Cyrene was located in what is now modern-day Libya, Simon, at the very least, was likely to have been a dark-skinned African. Much of what passes for ‘global’ media coverage today is overwhelmingly UK, Europe and US centred, in spite of the fact that, we really are ‘in this together’.
Back to ‘Good' Friday… We imagine ourselves as Veronica in this overcrowded, noisy street, looking through her eyes, experiencing her feelings, indeed stepping into her sandals. We imagine trying to hold our ground against the jostling crowd, with a stranger’s hand gripping one shoulder – perhaps trying to hold us back… or even like everyone else - clamouring to get a front row seat of the proceedings (not unlike some of the disturbing 'queues' we've witnessed recently)…
Imagine you hear the jeers and shouts grow louder as the scene comes into focus and recognise the all too familiar piece of wood, the instrument of torture – crude, barbaric – weighing down on the shoulders of Jesus - whose face is barely recognisable – you notice the sweat, blood and dirt smeared across a face now thoroughly disfigured by the physical abuse meted out by the soldiers.
You’ve seen this before and understand that such moments are literally designed to create fear, timidity and compliance from an already terrified and colonised populace. Such scenes are designed to keep us firmly in our place - in this world of all-powerful emperors and provincial governors. And another Roman imposition you’ve witnessed before is a stranger, in this case, Simon, breathless and labouring along the uneven road behind Jesus, being compelled to ‘help’ carry the cross by a fierce, intimidating, spear-wielding Roman soldier, under pain of punishment.
In the current climate, it's not too difficult to imagine, feeling both disempowered and overwhelmed by the scene before you, terrified and immobilised - by that all too familiar palpable sensation - fear. Yet something shifts in you – and in a split second you decide to do something – you step out and move forward in a way that’s bound to be noticed. In a breath, you step toward Jesus and simultaneously away from the safety and anonymity offered by the crowd. You are, in fact, just for one moment - getting in the way and disrupting the flow of the journey on the road to Golgotha, reaching out to someone effectively on death row, labelled criminal, and ‘outsider’. You do all this regardless of public opinion, disapproval and perhaps even against an attempt to physically restrain you or even push you aside.
On this particular Friday, your action may not prevent the outcome, and even your prayers may not be able to stop the inevitable from happening... but you can still do something that makes a difference and in that moment, you know your heart won’t let you rest until you do. And suddenly you don’t care who sees you or what they do to you. Instead, you dare to reach out to Jesus, and you wipe his sweaty, blood covered, dirt smeared face with your veil…
Imagine that time stands still, as Jesus presses his face into the cloth, lifts His gaze towards you, silently acknowledges your God-inspired act of compassion, kindness and love and then moves on.
In Christian tradition, it is said that Jesus’ image is left imprinted on Veronica’s veil. What she did was amazing, yet it’s unlikely that she was expecting any reward in return. But her action, an extraordinary act of divine love, reaches out and cares for, the one who turned out to be, the very image bearer of God. In that same moment there is a Divine exchange as Jesus invests his image in her.
Veronica – an ordinary woman from Jerusalem demonstrates what ordinary people, like you and I (oh and Kate!), can do when we are motivated by compassion and love and prepared to engage with the scene before us (unlike the scattered disciples), in spite of our own fear and fatigue.
The name, ‘vera icon’ means ‘true image’ and in the current climate – where fear and anxiety overwhelm, and life feels very much out of our control... we are all invited to this Station of the Cross - to be like Veronica and to actively disrupt the slow march to the many oppressions, suppressions and depressions others may be facing. We are even called to actively disrupt the pervading feelings of fear, helplessness, timidity, anxiety and even the temptation to self-preservation.
In this season of ‘social distancing’, we are all invited to reach out, not with hands or veil, but with demands for justice, words of compassion, acts of kindness, impassioned prayer and unconditional love toward our many ‘hidden’ communities.
Whatever the actual tradition behind St. Veronica (and we loved discovering her!), we are all called to manifest the ‘true image’ of God through our words, actions and disposition.
Praying with you and for you…
Rev Cham Kaur-Mann
Rev Cham Kaur-Mann has nearly 20 years leadership experience, in the church, charity and voluntary sectors and is a mentor and coach to leaders. She is the first (and currently only) Asian woman minister within the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Cham is Co-Director of Next Leadership and has also worked with the Cinnamon Network as the Trainers’ Team Manager, delivering leadership training across the UK.
She is a motivational speaker with a unique and compelling ability to ‘story a story’. Cham mentors, coaches and supports leaders from a variety of sectors. She is author of ‘Images of Jesus’ and ‘Are there traditional “women’s ministries”?’
Cham is a Certified Stakeholder Centered Coach.
Rev Dr Kate Coleman
Rev Dr Kate Coleman is the founding director of Next Leadership. She has well over 30 years of leadership experience in the church, charity, voluntary and business sectors, and is a mentor and coach to leaders from diverse sectors, backgrounds and communities.
Kate completed a term as Chair of the Evangelical Alliance Council (2012-2014), is a former president of the Baptist Union of Great Britain (2006-2007), and a Baptist Minister.
A popular speaker and lecturer, Kate has gained a reputation as a pioneer, visionary and an inspiration too many. She is a strategic advisor who mentors, coaches and supports leaders and organisations locally, nationally and internationally. Recognised as one of the 20 most influential black Christian women leaders in the UK.
Her network extends across all sectors and church denominations. Kate is the author of 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership. Her media contributions include the mainstream press, radio and TV. Kate is a Certified Stakeholder Centered Coach and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA).