One of my favourite devotions is the Stations of the Cross. Originally in the 13th century the devotion was created for Christians who were unable to visit the Holy Land. Travel in those days was very dangerous. It was also very expensive and well beyond the pockets of most people. The conflict between Christianity and Islam was an added peril. Folk did go on pilgrimage and the most important of these was to see Jerusalem and the Holy Sites associated with Jesus. Most important was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Having led several pilgrimages to Israel I know how vital such a pilgrimage is. Rome and Assisi are wonderful, but they’re not the same as visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where our Lord was crucified.
Each Station recalls a moment when Jesus stopped. A Station is simply a place of stopping, as trains stop in railway stations. Our Lord stops to talk to people in compassion: he stops when he falls to the ground out of exhaustion unable to carry on; he stops at Golgotha because that is the end of the line. Jesus is closest to us when we too are stopped in our tracks and wonder if we can carry on any longer. We may be halted by illness or failure, by grief or despair. But Jesus carries on, making his slow and painful way to the Cross and to the Resurrection, and brings himself with us in hope.
Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
Of the fourteen Stations it is the sixth which is for me the most significant. “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.” Veronica means true image. The story isn’t found until the 13th century so it is legendary. But it embodies a profound and blessed truth. Ancient Israel longed to be blessed by seeing the face of God.
“How long O Lord ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
“Your face Lord will I seek.” (Psalm 27:8)
The face of God became flesh in the face of Jesus, who smiled upon sinners with tenderness.
Pope Francis, who I respect and love, despite that I’m a schismatic Anglican, said,
“Here, this is me a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze.” I can echo those words with passion.
Some years ago, during one of the several pilgrimages I led to Israel, I woke up on the Friday with Gastro Enteritis. I was due to lead forty pilgrims in the Way of the Cross up through the Old City.
I’ve never forgotten the embarrassment of having to call into convents and visiting the loo many times. I also had a high temperature. The face of Jesus was never more real to me than during that Way of the Cross on that sweltering Friday morning. One of the sisters in the Convent of the Sisters of Zion wiped my face and gave me a drink of water. I know there is no comparison, but in a very minor and infinitesimal way it was a sharing with Jesus.
Whenever I do the Stations of the Cross I remember that time when I led forty pilgrims up through the Old City to where Our Lord Jesus was crucified.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes I was there.
(The Art work is by Brother Martin Erspamer OSB. Together with Father Timothy Radcliffe they have produced a unique book on the Stations of the Cross. Fr Timothy is one of my favourite authors and his book “What is the point of being a Christian” was a turning point in my life. He’s also much respected by Pope Francis.