I once heard a rather wry joke that said that Christians are optimists because the worst thing that could possibly happen has actually already happened, and things turned out alright afterwards. That worst thing being, of course, that when God revealed Himself directly to us, not only did we reject Him in favor of a bandit, but we killed Him for it.
I always remember this comment when I think of St. Veronica. For those who do not know her story, the basic core of it is that as Jesus carried the cross to Calvary, she stepped out of the crowd in order to wipe His face with her veil, and an image of His face was left on it. While she might not have understood the events of Good Friday as having such cataclysmic implications as that joke does, it is still not as if she was witnessing a minor incident. At the very least, she saw a man carrying the instrument of his own death, falling under its weight, and being scorned by the soldiers and the crowds. Even in an environment replete with hardships, crucifixion stood out as an awful fate, for both humans and for God, and there is effectively nothing that St. Veronica could do in the face of it.
The sixth Station of the Cross recounts how St. Veronica wiped the face of Jesus, while the seventh recounts Jesus falling a second time. Whatever dirt and muck St. Veronica might have wiped from Jesus’ face will have re-accumulated almost immediately, and though she might have wiped away the blood, she could not heal the wounds from which it flowed, and she certainly could not prevent the execution of God from taking place. If there was ever a contest for the most pitiably useless good deed of all time, I have to believe that St. Veronica would win handily, and yet it is a deed that we still contemplate, Lent after Lent. That is because usefulness is not the standard by which one should judge love. To quote Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus caritas est (God is Love):
The more we do for others, the more we understand and can appropriate the words of Christ: “We are useless servants” (Lk 17:10). We recognize that we are not acting on the basis of any superiority or greater personal efficiency, but because the Lord has graciously enabled us to do so.
St. Veronica is a model of one who loves for the sake of loving. She did not love because she or anybody else would profit from her actions; she loved because she was facing somebody who needed love, and because the Lord had enabled her to do so. By wiping away the grime and blood, she reveals the fundamental dignity of one who had been debased. His dignity had been forgotten amongst all of the pain inflicted upon Him, but St. Veronica emphasised, if only for a moment, that this was a person, not a thing. The fact that her action was so useless is what emphasises just how loving it was.
Confronting Overwhelming Evil
The problem is that, as Pope Benedict acknowledges, “There are times when the burden of need and our own limitations might tempt us to become discouraged.” It is so easy to despair of solving overwhelming evil. What can one do in the face of millions of abortions, the total destruction of war, famines that afflict entire nations, entire peoples being displaced from their homes, mass unemployment, pollution of the oceans, or the death of God? When good deeds amount to nothing, we might decide that, for example, because a man is about to die of some illness anyways, we might as well euthanize him, or at the very least make it very easy for him to kill himself, instead of ensuring that he is in a loving relationship with people who will accompany him to death. St. Veronica did not fall victim to this despair, and so she did what she could do. She loved the person with whom she was presented, the person who was in front of her.
One might also be tempted to respond to overwhelming evil not with inert despair, but by instituting a system that will, on an almost industrial level, solve every problem from on high. In doing so, however, the individuality of persons can be forgotten. In a system such as this, each person could be understood solely in terms of his or her problems. However, as Pope Benedict says,
We are helped by the knowledge that, in the end, we are only instruments in the Lord’s hands; and this knowledge frees us from the presumption of thinking that we alone are personally responsible for building a better world. In all humility we will do what we can, and in all humility we will entrust the rest to the Lord. It is God who governs the world, not we. We offer him our service only to the extent that we can, and for as long as he grants us the strength. To do all we can with what strength we have, however, is the task which keeps the good servant of Jesus Christ always at work: “The love of Christ urges us on” (2 Cor 5:14).
Trying to institute a way to resolve evil is can thus result in an overreach: we believe that we can ourselves bring about paradise on Earth. The crowd that Pilate addressed was given a choice between a Messiah who would accept death, Jesus, and a Messiah who would through his own power defeat their Roman enemies, Barabbas. It chose the Messiah who promised power. When this belief in a utopia of our own making comes about, so does the temptation to force people into conformity with this vision, especially the poor plebes who need the guidance and authority of the cognoscenti above them. The individual needs of individual people become lost among the abstract promises of everybody having what they need, but as Pope Benedict says, “Christian charity is first of all the simple response to immediate needs and specific situations.” For him, it is a way of “making present here and now the love which man always needs.”
Love Persons, not Units
The most vivid part of the story of St. Veronica is that the image of the face of Jesus remained on her veil. The face is, of course, the most basic way of identifying a person. This image emphasizes that St. Veronica’s charity was not directed at a random condemned criminal, or at the condemned in the abstract, but at Jesus of Nazareth in particular. It is very good to make sure that, for example, the poor have access to food and shelter and showers, but it is important to not see them as if they are moving through a factory on a conveyor belt. I am not saying that establishing these systems of charity is intrinsically wrong, but instead that we must remember that there is a distinction between ensuring that a person’s needs are met and loving that particular person. As Catherine Doherty, founder of the Madonna House Apostolate, says in her book Fragments of My Life, “When an apostolic group hits a place like Harlem, where the ordinary necessities of life are lacking, it is quite obvious it will direct its primary attention to those fulfilling those needs. But it must be remembered that ‘Not by bread alone does man live.’” Doherty then describes what she calls “the ‘chitchat’ apostolate” which builds relationships with those being served, and which is “the core and essence” of the Apostolate. These relationships tend to the “intangible” needs of people, which cannot be defined ahead of time, but are identified as a relationship develops.
It is important to remember that, in a way, we do not actually serve different people from St. Veronica; the Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the King who will say that what we did to serve the least of these, we did to him. Now, that might seem as if, when we see Christ in those we serve, that we are no longer seeing them as persons special in themselves, but only as avatars of someone else. Ultimately, however, persons bear the image of God, so they cannot be fully loved without the knowledge that they have that special dignity. We must see them as being more than the random result of a cosmic accident, as being able to love, which God is. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame”:
Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
For Hopkins, it is the vast and wondrous variety of creation that reveals Christ’s face. The uniqueness of each particular thing points to God’s boundless creativity. In this way, we can in fact see both the particularity of specific persons, and how we serve God by serving them.