Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Learning New Lives: Beholding the True Picture of God

A meditation on the 6th Station, given at St. John's Episcopal Church, in Dallas, TX, on March 6, 2020, as a part of their faith community's Lenten practice.

Station 6: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus
From the Stations of the Cross at Lodwar Cathedral, Kenya.

The Sixth Station: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus

Full disclosure: I don’t have much experience wiping people’s faces. Maybe you are in a similar spot. Most of the limited experience I do have, and maybe yours too, is with children. I mention this because I spent most of my childhood here, and among us tonight are my grandfather, some godparents, former youth group leaders and others, who wiped my face in literal and metaphorical ways, for which I am grateful. Gwen McAllen spotted me one day, in 6th grade, in the narthex. She stopped me, which was remarkable because, like a lot of children, I had assumed I wasn’t seen. We don’t always think of children as among the vulnerable, but they are - they don’t come to or leave this place without help from someone else! - and she saw me and handed me a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity because, she said, I seemed like a young man who might make good use of it. And the late George Ross, my fifth grade Sunday School teacher who gave me a perfect attendance Sunday school pin and stopped me cold one day when he said he was so excited to see what God might do in my life. Wiping the faces of children is a charism of this place, and I name it to name my gratitude for you and my prayer that God will continue to grow and bless that gift in you.


It was compassion that first moved her. A response, however small, to grief, to empathy, to heartache touching helplessness. But the moment did not stay small. It is the church’s tradition and teaching that it was the face of God she encountered and saw in clearer detail for her love, for her noticing, for her noticing moving to compassion moving to action, governed by love. 

Compassion, aided by the gift of attention, of noticing, followed by the conviction born of compassion, that there is a face beneath the accumulated layers of suffering, pain, of life’s circumstance and blood, injustice, a face, a person beneath the suffering worthy of knowing and worthy of touch. Surely compassion like this, conviction like this, when it finds us, is God’s gift to be opened with thanks. A good reminder for those of us, charged through our baptism, to seek and serve Christ in each person, that for us, too, we are daily surrounded by people worthy of our attention, loved by this God and for whom Jesus died, and that that might move us to compassion and action. In the cleansing of these faces, in our serving the sorrowful, we might also see more clearly the face and the fabric of God's kingdom.

The tradition holds that she took from that encounter a cloth that bore the image of our Savior. And that this cloth might still be found. Along these lines, the name the tradition gives the woman - ‘Veronica’ - is a name with a transparent meaning. It comes from the combination of Latin words, vera - truth - and icon - meaning image. True image. True picture. The true picture of Christ there was revealed on the cloth. And whether or not the fabric exists, this moment is a true picture of Christ, that is the main point that Soren Kierkegaard tried to remind us of two hundred years ago, when he said that the crucified Christ was truly God, but not in the sense that after the suffering, after the outpouring of love, after the love given for neighbor, the life laid down for friend and stranger, while we were yet enemies, Christ died for us, it was not as if - after all of this - said SK that Christ ripped off the costume, ripped off the Clark Kent mask to reveal the Superman beneath, the true God, no, but it was precisely in his suffering, in his emptying, by his refusal to meet the poisoned powers of this world in kind, that we encountered the truest face of God and the truth about what God’s love is. Easter Day does not undo but confirms this picture of God as the truest picture of God. The risen Christ still bears the wounds of crucifixion in his body.

With the face of God unmasked, with this true picture of the Holy One, we also see and receive a truer picture of the world. Think C.S. Lewis when he says that he believes in Christianity as he believes that the sun has risen: not only because he sees it, but because by it he sees everything else.

Let me ask you: how has the face of the crucified One, who became the risen Son, changed the way you see the world?

Kierkegaard liked to tell the story of a man who owned a shop, like a general store. One day, it got late, and the shopkeeper put things in order and called it a day. He closed shop and went home. But sometime that evening, or maybe even deeper into the night, some thieves broke into the shopkeeper’s store. Bizarrely, the thieves didn’t steal anything. Instead, they meticulously rearranged all the labels, the price labels, on the items in the store. So cheap things now had four digit tags. And really precious things were made to look cheap.

The next day, the shopkeeper arrived at the store and didn’t notice the hoax. Nothing appeared any less in order than it had the night before. There was business to attend to. Routines to keep. From the shopkeeper’s perspective, protected from critical reflection by the mundane-ness of the rhythms of life, it was just another day. Then the customers started arriving. They, too, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Instead, all of them began interacting, shopping, purchasing, exactly as they had on the previous day, but with the labels as they now were, as if the mislabeled labels reflected the true values of things. And they’re still doing that now, Kierkegaard says, we’re still doing this now, still shopping in the store not knowing that none of the labels are true.

Kierkegaard says that our world is that shop.

Cheap things get lifted up, attract our time (and our devotion). We attach our lives to these cheap things in disguise. We make too much of them. Meanwhile, truly precious things get mislabeled as cheap and we dismiss them, so we miss them altogether. We don’t think much about things we should think more about. When we do, we don’t think about them in a way that reflects their real worth or right place in the world. The labels have been put on the wrong things, and it is darn near impossible to know what anything’s worth.

And yet. Against all odds in such a world, sometimes, a person comes to her senses and peels back the label. Sometimes, a person finds herself doing double takes between twin mismatched realities, and she thinks to herself, “Well, that can’t be right.” You peel off a label of a precious thing called cheap and you decide to elevate its place in your life. Likewise, you peel the high-priced label off of the cheap thing and make room in your life accordingly. You wipe off the battered face and find a child of God. These label-rectifying moments, when they come, are almost like miracles.

Like this Methodist congregation, back in the 80s, that discovered one of their own had contracted HIV. They held a special meeting, considered excommunicating the infected parishioner or canceling communion altogether, forever. Maybe the person could just commune at the very end, even after the clergy. You know, just to be safe. But they decided not to act that night, but instead to look into it, and when they did look into it, they learned that the greatest danger, by far, was to the parishioner with HIV, whose immune system was greatly compromised, far more likely to be affected by drinking of the cup than the others who shared the cup with her. In a moment of grace, they shook off fear and became the body of Christ again. They determined that, from that moment on, the parishioner with HIV would commune first, would eat and drink first, that they would follow. Because we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread, one cup.

Veronica took up a cloth, put it to the face of a stranger condemned to death for deadly things, she reached out to one of the things, the people, labeled as worthless, dangerous, forbidden, and touched God meeting us in the mess and depths of humanity’s brokenness, touched God becoming broken for us, and discovered the suffering servant of Isaiah. The vineyard owner’s child, returned and rejected. The Son of the living God, the one who did not count equality with God as something to be exploited or grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross.

Author and activist Shane Claiborne cautions that we should be careful. “Be careful as you climb the ladder of success or else on your way up you might pass Jesus on his way down.”

We who come here to behold his face are learning to see the world in light of the love that has held nothing back from us and so freed us for lives that love in his company. In his company, fists of fear un-clench and open. Moreover, his company is causing us to question the logic of this world which clings to certainties we cannot claim, inviting us to love in scary places, with frightening and frightened people, without fear. For lo, he is with us. And, lo, he is with them, the scary, the frightened, the ones for whom he also died. The ones in whom his image is also put, for whom redemption is also meant, even there, on their faces, buried beneath the blood.

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