Last week, we made a close examination of the darker and more sinful parts of ourselves as we considered the perspectives of Barabbas and the crowd. This week, we will highlight the better and more virtuous parts of our human nature as we consider those who were kind and offered works of charity to our Lord during His great suffering.
A popular devotion that we Catholics practice –particularly during Lent, though it can be done any time of the year – is known as the Stations of the Cross, the Way of the Cross, or the Via Dolorosa. For this devotion, the practitioner follows in the footsteps of Christ, meditating upon 14 specific moments during His Passion, beginning at the home of Pontius Pilate, all the way to Calvary, where He is crucified. Many of these moments are specifically recorded in scripture, such as His sentencing, carrying of the cross, and the meeting of the women of Jerusalem. However, there are also stations that are not explicitly stated in scripture. As Catholics, we learn the truths of our faith from scripture and tradition – that which has been handed down from Christians who have come before us. The tradition of the Stations of the Cross begins with Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is common for us to visit the graves of our loved ones, or to commemorate their lives and passing with special places and events. Since Jesus had no final resting place after His resurrection, Mary would walk the same route her Son walked during His Passion in order to commemorate His act of love for humanity. We know that Mary remained close with the Apostles after the death of her Son as we see Jesus charge John with her care and we also see her in the upper room with the Apostles for the first Pentecost. Therefore, it is not a far stretch to imagine she shared her devotional practices with the Apostles as well, which were then handed down through the generations. After the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, official markers were placed at each of the stations so that Christians could outwardly practice the devotion of following the Passion of the Christ through Jerusalem.
In the Stations of the Cross, Jesus encounters two exemplary individuals – Simon of Cyrene (5th station) and Veronica (6th station). Since Simon is mentioned explicitly in scripture (Matt 27:32, Mark 15:21, and Luke 23:26), we will begin with him. We do not know much about Simon. Mark tells us that he was a father, but beyond that, we are left to wonder. The guards, while pushing Jesus along, noted that He was too wounded and too exhausted to continue carrying His own cross, so they recruited Simon to carry it for Him. We do not know if he was willing or reluctant to help or whether he was a believer or not. What we do know, is that he became involved and performed the task at hand. This was a tremendous act of heroic virtue, one to which we are all called. How often are we asked to help others and find the timing inconvenient, the task overwhelming, or the thanks lacking? The truth is, we have a duty to provide Christian charity despite all of these things. Christian service is about doing what we ought to do because it pleases God for us to do it and not because we get something in return for doing it. Who knows what Simon was doing or where he was going? What we do know is that he picked up the heavy cross of a suffering man and carried it for Him. That was enough. Recall the various times you’ve acted in service to someone suffering or otherwise in need without any expectations, but rather simply because it was the right thing to do. As you reflect, you will probably find that the virtue of charity is its own reward.
The story of Veronica is not found in scripture, but it is a very popular encounter in Catholic tradition. Veronica was a woman who was watching with the crowds along the path Jesus walked to Calvary. As He approached her, Veronica looked at Jesus with compassion and wiped the blood and sweat from His face. According to some historical texts (one is titled “Acts of Pontius Pilate”), Veronica was the hemorrhaging woman that was cured by touching Jesus’ robes earlier in His ministry. This side of heaven, we won’t know for certain if this was the case, but it is not necessarily a far-fetched idea. As we walk this earth, have relationships, and encounter others on our journey, we very often find that we cannot carry another’s cross. We cannot take their pain away or make anything better for them. Simon actually took and carried the weight of Jesus’ cross for him, but Veronica shows us that even if simply being there for others, acknowledging their pain, and comforting them in their affliction is all we can do, it is more than enough. These are the times you sit in a hospital room with those you love, hold them while they cry, or lend an ear while they talk through their situation. We are each called to a virtuous level of compassion for everyone we encounter, because everyone is carrying a cross, whether you can see it or not. Every charitable act you perform for others throughout your day is an imitation of Veronica toward Jesus.
Yes, human nature is sinful, but sin is not the totality of our nature. We are called to so much more. We are called to heroic virtue. This week, reflect on the times you’ve offered sincere Christian charity to others, expecting nothing in return. Perhaps some of those moments didn’t seem very heroic to you at the time, but note that in those moments, you were, in fact, responding to the call of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit within you, to act in big and small ways. Use this thought experiment as motivation to move further away from sin and toward virtue. Make it a point to be charitable toward others, even if it is simply to smile at a passing stranger. Keep in mind that sometimes the most charitable acts you can do are towards those in your own home or those closest to you. You do not know the weight or nature of the cross another individual is carrying, but your simple act of kindness can either lessen the weight of that cross, or be a means of wiping the blood and sweat from their face. While those calling for the crucifixion of our Lord reveal the darkness of our hearts, Simon and Veronica reveal the light that comes forth from doing the will of the Father.