WOMEN OF THE WAY

These four pieces, sent to us anonymously, are part of a series of over thirty Holy Week meditations. They are dedicated by the author to the women of the parishes in which he has served, in thanksgiving for their ministry to the Body of Christ.

VERONICA

To the historians of the tradition, she is known simply as 'the Veronica'. Yet that is not her real name. It is a reflection of what she carries and what she does. What she carries - the image of the suffering servant - is what she will become. Let me explain.

Veronica is not a scriptural figure. And yet, long before she appears in the tradition, we meet her in the Gospels. It is the tradition of the earliest times which gives her a place along the sacred road of suffering, and a special place in the ministry to Our Lord.

We are at the sixth station. Christ, sleepless and prayer-racked, has undergone the night arrest, the feeble and panic-stricken desertion of his friends, and the traitor's kiss. He has been harried from Palace to Governor, from King to Priest to Pilate, enduring the kangaroo courts of a justice that had need of darkness to cover its deeds. He has witnessed the denial of Peter - Peter, the Rock, crumbling before the challenge of a servant girl! - only to see day break on a lynch mob. Before Jerusalem awoke on this Passover Feast, her feast of freedom, celebration by death was in the air - a new lamb had been prepared for the sacrifice; one whose blood would indeed turn away the angel of death for ever.

Jesus was mocked, stripped and beaten by the soldiery. The formal flogging ordered by Pilate seemed like an act of mercy by comparison. The great thongs of leather, pitted with leaden balls, drove harrows across his back in human blood. A man who survived could barely stand or drag himself one step beyond another. And yet it was merciful, for it shortened the time on Golgotha.

Twice he stumbled, thorn-crowned on the pavement, and Simon was summoned - "the stranger in from the country" - to carry the cross beam. He was compelled, dragged out of the crowd. It was like a final imperial joke - a black man helping a Jew to his execution; the grim humour of oppression and the death camps.

Simon became the only other man to know that final journey step by bloody step. It was the Cyrenian, the unconsidered stranger, patron of the outcast and despised, who took up the cross when we, the disciples, failed.

It is here that she comes to him. Look down from the rooftops of Jerusalem. The crowd along the narrow streets is pressing around the figure of the bleeding, ruined man at the heart of the marshalled cohort. And there she is, pushing out from the crowd, risking the spear points. Veronica, the woman healed of the haemorrhage, goes beyond the cordon of terror, where no man could go and live, simply to wipe the face of Jesus with a gentle cloth. How many years since she, broken and bleeding herself, had pushed through the crowd and reached out to touch His cloth, the hem of His garment!

As the power flowed from Him in response to the anguish and longing of her prayer, so she was healed. And in the same instant He knew, on his way to the dead girl, that power had been taken. "Who touched me?". "Everyone touched you Lord, you're in a jostling crowd." "Somebody touched me" That touch was, at one and the same time the testimony to her shame, the expression of her longing and the means of her transformation.

Now again she comes forward to touch the Christ; no longer hidden, her love and faithfulness witness before a hostile and baffled world. Jesus is on the way to another death, a death that will change man's destiny: His own death. And here, in a place of no mercy, this little mercy is exchanged. In Veronica's action, sacramental in its simplicity, a whole life of thanksgiving and adoration is contained. How little we can do for Christ - how much He has done for us!

On the cloth, the tradition tells us, the image, 'the Veronica', the very ikon, of Christ remains. For in that moment, the lady of the Veronica becomes herself an image of the Compassionate Christ.

Lord, your love healed Veronica and cast out sin. Lord, say the word and I shall be healed. In the daily round or in the utmost danger, give me a heart where love casts out fear. Amen

THE WOMEN OF JERUSALEM

"Jerusalem the Golden with milk and honey blest."
"Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee."
"Glorious things of thee are spoken, Sion city of our God."

The Psalmist and the hymn writers sing of the ancient city of David: the last haunt of the vanquished Jebusites; the city shattered by the Babylonians and razed by Rome; the dream of vainglorious centuries of Crusader armies; the trophy supreme of the triumphant Saracen; the great centre of the three monotheistic religions; the longed for home of every scattered and persecuted Jew. It is a city of four quarters, where the churches of Christendom wrangle, and where the guardianship of every inch is closely fought in unforgiving hostility. Jerusalem is divided, torn, sinful, beautiful, longing to be holy: the capital city of the heart of man.

To the city which David founded, and yet in which he was unworthy to build the temple of the Lord's Presence, thirty generations later, has come a Son of David. God's Presence dwells with Him, the Kingship has come home; but to a city that both knows and does not know its hour. It is the city of both Palm Sunday and Good Friday - a place of rejoicing and rejection, of excitement and execution. On these stones the fickleness of our humanity is writ large.

Luke alone records these women, the Women of Jerusalem, as they have become known. They are simply part of a large crowd following the procession. What distinguishes them is that they are weeping and wailing for Him. Did they know Him? Had they heard Him, seen Him? Had their lives been touched by His? Had they been part of happier crowds on better days than this black Friday that we dare to call Good? Or had their hearts drawn them there because they could not forbear weeping for one more victim of man's inhumanity; expending in the solidarity of tears, some deep and common anguish for another mother's son?

Christ speaks to them. Though the High Priest and the false witnesses challenged Him, he was silent. Abused and spat upon, He denied the soldiers the prophecy they demanded. But to the women who wait and weep, the Word speaks.

"Women of Jerusalem - weep not for me but for yourselves and for your children. For the days are coming when men will say 'How lucky are women without children, who never gave birth, who never nursed a baby at the breast! It will be a time when people will say to the mountains 'Fall on me' and to the hills 'Hide us' - for if such things happen when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry"

These are no comfortable words. The city which Jesus longed to gather under His wing, the city which murders the prophets and rejects the word of God, the city which does not know the time of its own peace or recognise the coming of the Lord, is to be besieged and blockaded on every side. Its people will be massacred, and not a stone will be left upon a stone - but for a lone wall to wail at, down the long history of man. The city will become a world turned upside down, where the blessing of generations has become a curse, and where motherhood offers hostages to misfortune.

The women of Jerusalem are emblematic of the whole world's history. They are the women outside the death camps; at the secret burial sites of Srebrenica; beyond the frozen wastes of Stalin's holocaust; in the Plazas of Buenos Aires mourning the disappeared. These women know the temporary triumph of the enemy and the long and bitter price of judgement. They are keening for the Christ of history: God's Son, every mother's son. The painful road through the city to the skull-shaped hill is the winding bloody track of history. As certainly as it leads to his death, it will lead the legions to the walls of Jerusalem, to slaughter children without mercy, to burn the city, destroy the temple and begin the longest exile in the history of man. The tears of those women anticipate the agony on the last hilltop redoubt of Masada, where self-slaughter alone thwarted those who had left Jerusalem a heap of ruins.

Lord we pray for the children of the world and those yet unborn, who live in the shadow of our sinfulness, destroyed by our selfishness and pride. Teach us again the innocence that calls you Father and all men brothers. Amen.

MARY MAGDALENE

We do not know her beginning and we do not know her end. Legends abound; but both scripture and tradition are silent. All we know is that she was set free by Jesus.

She is the woman out of whom seven devils were cast, a slave to the many and a rager against God. Satan, the prince of the dark world, imprisoned her and held her captive by the bonds of the oppressor. We have no description of her exorcism, or testimony to her transformation - just a simple statement: she was set free by the Son of God. And thereafter she follows Him, never far from the Christ who released her. Was she, as legend tells, a scarlet woman? A woman of the streets? We do not know - people do crazy things when their mind is in the power of the Devil. We know only that her liberation was great, and was matched by her love for Jesus.

A modern preacher or politician would have feared to have her around: imagine the talk, the suggestions, the scandal. Those scandals live on in wild and fantastical heresies to this day: that the Magdalene and Jesus were the bride and groom at Cana; that they had children; that after the crucifixion Magdalene and their children fled to Spain with St James; that their royal line lives on. Nonsense? You may think so. But at least three major heretical groups have pursued that fantasy down history's stranger byways. A whole family and cult in France suppose themselves the direct blood heirs of Jesus of Nazareth. There is not a shred of truth in any of it, of course. But the Magdalene is perennially fascinating and human frailty tends always to reduce spiritual mysteries to the salacious level of the flesh.

Jesus was no stranger to womenfolk. Apart from the Maries who followed him, Veronica touched him, and the Syro-phoenician woman bludgeoned a blessing out of Him in an encounter worthy of an East End backyard. He broke all the rules by asking a drink of a Samaritan woman, and then made it worse by going into detail about her sex life, and forgiving her adulteries. He was no ordinary rabbi, no man for conventional dealings with womenfolk. He was radical and dangerous, talking to them heart to heart. Jesus is unafraid of the feminine; he glories in womankind - the other half of lonely man's creation.

There is no scandal here. If for one moment there had been the faintest whiff of impropriety, there would have been no need for this risky trial and execution in an overcrowded festival city. The authorities would simply have discredited Him and the usual fatal penalty of the law would have been applied - make no mistake.

The Magdalene is there for us. It is because she has come from so far off to follow Him, because her journey has been from the dark of hopelessness to the foot of the Cross, that she is for us a sign of hope. Unlike the bystanders, she has come to this place of grief and dereliction to gaze on the one who has saved her. She waits and watches - all her hopes seeping away with the blood of the crucified.

The Magdalen is witness to it all: the taunts of the crowd; the mocking of the priests; the indifference of the soldiery as they dice for a dying man's clothes; the railing thief; the man with the sponge waiting to stave off Elijah. She sees the broken body; the borrowed grave; the hasty burial; the careful troopers sealing the tomb; the setting of the guard, lest there be any nonsense. In all this there was no time for washing and embalming the tortured corpse which was once friend, master and liberator. There was no time for the gentle courtesies of death. So she had to return when the Sabbath was over; when all hope had fled, and when rigor mortis had released its iron hand. Magdalenes always return to the place of sorrow; to their last duties.

Did she hope; did she suspect; did she know, when she came early on the Sabbath Day, while it was still dark? We do not need to know. Her own life was a triumph of God's mercy over blank despair. She was impelled by the simple imperative that makes her dear to all our hearts - she loved the Lord and she had no option. In the response of the Magdalene's heart is unlocked the secret of the third day.

Lord Jesus Christ, whose blood sets us free from sin, and from the angel of death, give us the grace to stand with the Magdalene - in life, in death, in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life - ministering to your body here on earth, running to tell the world - He is risen indeed! Amen.

MARY

In the great east window of the church of Wickhambreaux in Kent, just east of the cathedral city of Canterbury, is a large and glorious turn-of-the-century depiction of the Annunciation. It is by the American artist Rosencrantz and is curious in one particular. Not content with the scriptural story of Gabriel's appearance to Mary, to announce the coming of the Messiah and seek her 'yes' to the divine betrothal, Rosencrantz has added, in full glory, the other six archangels. And, lest you should be in any doubt, or forgetful, of the more obscure members of the heavenly general staff, he has named them in the glass.

As Mary bends low in supplication amidst a field of shining lilies - on to which a prophetic star weeps a translucent drop of blood - Gabriel speaks. The significance of his message and its ultimate purpose is contained in the southern extremity of the window where stands the warrior archangel, Michael. There in his dazzling armour, he has his foot on the dragon's head. We see held foursquare, his mighty shield and sword. And, dimly, in the shield's reflection we see, huddled together against their current tragedy and future adversity, naked save for their loincloths, the retreating figures of our first parents: exiled from Eden, banished from paradise, denied the Presence. The way back is obstructed by the whirling sword of the archangel.

In that disobedience and exile is contained the seed of our fallen race. There we see the illusory freedom of chosen wickedness, the choice of knowing better than God. That option has become our prison, our fetters, our mortality. From it there is no escape; no escape, that is, until the moment which the window portrays. From Adam and Eve to that moment, irreversible mortality reigned, a condemnation which no sacrifice on earth could mitigate. And mortality was swallowed up in the forgetfulness of Sheol: a place without memory and without future, without promise, without thanksgiving, and with no knowledge of the Presence. There all that can be known is a thirst for God knows what.

The royal road to the triumph of the King of Kings begins with the story in that window. In a moment of obscurity, the messenger of God descends to greet the girl who is to become Our Lady. A simple innocent - all but a child - says the 'yes' which overturns the sin of Eve and allows the creator of universes beyond number, to form from her quickened dust and by His Spirit and His Word, a New Adam. Humanity is transformed by the divine nature in co-inherence. The Son, the only Son, becomes one of us.

Mary is the gateway to His glory and His suffering. Hers is a triumph that, on this Good Friday, we know and cannot know. She is the key to our discipleship. Like all the Christ-bearers down the centuries, Mary said 'yes' unconditionally to things she would never have chosen. They were events she could never have imagined, in a scheme the scope of which, had she known it, would have frightened her far more than the unexpected visit of an archangel. God asks simply "Will you do it?" Our 'yes' can have no conditions unless we wish to restrict the sovereignty of God.

On the way of sorrows the prophecy of Simeon is fulfilled. "Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is spoken against. And a sword will pierce your own heart also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."

What a man thinks about Mary tells us what he thinks about Christ. In that indeed is revealed the thoughts of many hearts.

It is at the foot of the cross that her soul is pierced. Down years of hardship, flight, exile, obscurity, the old man's blessing, rejoicing and bitter prophecy have followed her to this. Words often pondered in her heart, now come terrifyingly true on a Jerusalem Passover morning. The young boy who had astounded the temple teachers twenty years before, now goes to his death at their insistence. And her place is with Him. Stabat Mater... It is the vision and promise of her constancy which places her name on the lips of the dying. 'Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.'

That all too human constancy is portrayed in two enduring images - the Madonna and Child and the Pieta - in Michaelangelo's masterpieces in Bruges and in Rome. But human mourning and grief are not enough. Now God Himself plumbs the depths of our human loneliness. "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?". The psalm of tortured death and dereliction fades on the lips of Jesus, yet ends as it must, in triumph for all generations. "All the ends of the world shall remember themselves and be turned to the Lord. The heavens shall declare his righteousness unto a people yet to be born whom the Lord hath made."

A foretaste of the hinterland of sheol, the place of longings forever unfulfilled, makes inroads into body and soul. "I thirst". "My soul is athirst for God, the living God". Physical dehydration marks the spiritual desert of the One who is the living water, and from whose side baptismal water flows. The church is born in the gift of Disciple to Mother and Mother to Disciple; and in the midst of every sign of human defeat, the march to victory begins.

As dusk falls on the grave-gift of Arimathea, the powers of death and hell have made their last and greatest error. God has entered the realm of death in the humanity of Jesus, the sinless one upon whom they have no claim. The Trojan horse of His humanity conceals the power of His divinity. God-in-Christ tramples the broken gates of hell and holds out his hand to Adam, Eve and all their generations. He lifts them from the eternal prison to the eternal Presence. The tree of life, the centre of the paradise of Eden, has come into the world and stands forever on a hill outside Jerusalem; just outside the capital city of the heart. There we are invited to lay our burden down. The long exile is over, and we are home.

LORD JESUS CHRIST SON OF THE LIVING GOD, HAVE MERCY UPON ME A SINNER..

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