Hers is an act of mercy, an expression of compassion. How well does she know Jesus? Is she familiar with his ministry? Has she listened to him teach? Has she or one of her friends known his acceptance? his healing touch? his assurance of restoration and wholeness? Or is this simply a moment when her own heart is touched, moved by the witness of human suffering?
Hers is an act of mercy-- stepping into the street, unwinding the cloth that covers her head, she uses it to wipe the sweat, the blood, the tears from his face.
His eyes express his gratitude, the return of mercy.
And later, back home, haunted by the image of his face, she drops the cloth into the basket of waiting laundry, notes something odd in its folds, opens it and stares with wonder... there, in the stains, in the grime, she makes out a face, the face of compassion, of forgiveness, of heaven.
It would come to be called an acheiropoieton, an icon made without human hands; she, however, neither labeled it nor understood it, but knew the truth of it.
Myth? Legend? Fact? Does it matter? The truth of the story remains the same:
An encounter with Jesus leaves a lasting impression; that face, if you will, stays with you forever.
"Why me?" Simon asks as the Roman soldier drags him from the crowd. He is a visitor from the sticks, here only to get supplies. The crush of people itself is an annoyance, already slowing him down, but now this?
It is obvious he was one who could handle the cross-- burly from years of farming and construction-- but politics is not his thing, nor are hordes of people, nor is crucifixion-- he abhors suffering, whether ailing sheep, or a starving beggar, or this...
He looks at the stranger and wonders, What had they done to him? He bleeds from a makeshift crown made of thorns, and his back is striped with welts and lines of crusted blood. Yet his eyes! Though too weak to speak, his eyes reveal gratitude, and his gaze holds Simon's; in it Simon sees something vast, broad, sees...peace? Impossible peace, given the circumstance. And tenderness, as if, despite his suffering, there is still room within for another, for compassion, for Simon.
And then the soldier is shouting, shouting and swearing and shoving, and Simon hefts one arm of the cross onto his broad shoulder and drags it up the street.
The man staggers beside him. Simon glances again and again at his face, sees that same look, eyes clear and receptive, eyes resting on each face along the way, eyes accepting the loss in each, eyes replacing pain with hope, anger with acceptance, hate with eternity.
Simon's annoyance yields to wonder. The cross is heavy, but not as heavy as what is borne by this man with the remarkable eyes.
Not the sort of day Simon had anticipated, but the sort of day that lifts you out of all your life has been and drops you with a jolt into all your life could be.
Her heart cracked and bleeding, helpless to intervene, Mary watched her son's tortured trudge to execution, remembering moments--
nursing him, steadying him as he learned to walk, comforting him when rejected by classmates, smiling as he shared his first crush, holding him as he wept at cruelty and injustice, holding back her own tears each time he said, "I love you."
And now this:
hatred, pain, despair.
What do you do when the ones you love are beyond protection?
had i been there, would i have stepped forward when he fell would i have stepped out of the crowd risked their jeers the butt end of a soldier's spear would i have wrapped my arms around his bruised ribs bruised ribs crusted with dirt and sweat and blood lifted against the world's weight to support him, raise him up would i have reach for him would i have been drawn by his tears, by his compassion, by his innocence, by his humanity?
where will he stumble, fall today will i step forward will i step out of the crowd risk the jeers of the privileged the ridicule of the proper and the clean?
will i step up, reach out to him drawn by the knowledge that it's i who fall when he falls when she falls when they fall that he falls when i fall?
"Bear it," his father used to say, and then, "It builds character." His mother added, "Jesus never complained, did he?"
For his parents, suffering was a virtue, and they embraced it like other parents embraced BBQ ribs, cold beer and...well...happiness.
If they weren't suffering, they were out of God's will, far more uncomfortable for them than illness, loss, even death.
Growing up (or trying to) he suffered with them, accepted their strange love of suffering-- it was, after all, all he knew. Even as a boy he found himself first puzzled by and then secretly condemning of the frivolous happiness of his friends' families-- the way they laughed at dinner, played games together, vacationed at Disneyland.
"Jesus carried his cross," his parents reminded him, so for years that served as his model for coping with life.
There had been plenty of crosses to carry-- his fibromyalgia, the unfaithfulness of his partner, layoffs from jobs, his neighbor's obnoxious music, on and on. He hefted each cross as it fell his way, staggering at times, weakly muttering, "Thank you, Jesus," never meaning it.
And then one Sunday in Lent-- feeling like attending church was just one more cross to lift (a small one, he acknowledged, but still unwelcome)-- at some point during the sermon... epiphany:
Jesus bore his cross so I can dump mine.
"Come unto me," Jesus said to him, "and toss your crosses. Long-suffering, gritting your teeth, pretending what is awful is a blessing-- bullshit. Life is tough enough without guilting yourself when you feel overwhelmed and unhappy. Just feel overwhelmed and unhappy as long as you need to and then look for what will bring you lightness and laughter.
After the service, he drove home tossing the smaller crosses out of the driver's-side window, watching them bounce and shatter on the shoulder of the highway. He knew the rest would fit in the dumpster in the alley behind his condo building.
People give up many things for Lent; he would give up his voluntary martyrdom.
This morning. I walked into the study to find Sophia in the closet scooping out the cat litter.
"You were still sleeping," she said, "so I was looking for things to do." She wrinkled her nose. "You do this every day?" she asked.
"Repeatedly," I said. "And you really don't need to do it. I can get it."
"Oh, no problem. Always good to learn about being human. Wasn't my job, as you know."
"Let me walk that to the toilet," I said, reaching for the scoop.
"Yes, fine." She handed it to me, then followed me down the hall, continuing to talk.
"I just stopped by to make one thing clear:
"You are not the crazy one.
"I know you feel like Alice, like you've stumbled, tumbled down the rabbit hole. Lies are now facts; facts are now lies. Up is down; down is up. Right is left; left is right. Right is wrong; wrong is right.
"But the center still holds. God is still God. What your heart tells you-- what your essential self knows-- is still the truth."
I flushed the toilet and lowered the lid.
"I do feel crazy at times, like the world is unraveling."
"And, sadly, it may be, but you are not."
"Thank you," I said. "I needed that."
"We all do." She took the scoop from me. "I'll put this back. You go get your coffee-- it's ready for you. Like I said, I was looking for things to do."