The Crucifixion in Five Glimpses
Palm Sunday Reflection
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Today’s reflection is the first of a three-part reflection, that will continue at the Great Vigil of Easter and on Easter Sunday morning. Perhaps we could take advantage of this Holy Week space to meditate a bit longer.
This morning, the best I want to place a series of images or vignettes before you as we enter into this Holy Week, with the hope both that the Spirit can somehow speak through our stories and our lives and that our hearts may be open to transformation.
The first image is this:
The Sixth Station of the Cross has long been the one that resonates most deeply in my soul. I don’t know why. Perhaps it’s the deep pathos of the encounter, the heart-breaking scene of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus as he lies there before her, straining under the weight of the cross. The plaque for the Sixth Station hangs there on the column just to the left of my chair, and I see it every time I walk in to make announcements at the first of a service. Every time.
The interesting thing about the scene is that we name it “Veronica wipes the face of Jesus,” when, perhaps, Veronica is actually not the woman’s name. This is another one of those experiences in our practice of faith where a literal understanding can actually restrict our soul and we are called to consent to the deeper, metaphorical truths that can transform us.
“Veronica” can be derived from the phrase vera icon, or true or authentic icon, referring not to the woman but to the cloth which lay across our Lord’s face. The cloth captured the imprint of Jesus’ face, his sweat and blood soaking into it and leaving a permanent mark. We’ll return to this later, because it is a powerful image for us to meditate on as we understand our own practice of faith.
The second image is this:
Last week as we were driving home from Arkansas, we arrived there at the junction of Interstate 20 and the Downtown Connector. Of course, traffic went from sixty miles an hour to six, and we took our place in the clogged artery of the city’s heart as we creeped toward Flowery Branch. If you have been on that stretch of road, you will recall that there are always folks standing there with signs asking for help.
They are sort of spaced out every few dozen feet holding cardboard signs. We passed two people, a man and a woman, and turned the curve to merge on to the connector when traffic stopped entirely. I looked over at Evelyn who was sitting in the front seat (as a side note, this is, of course, a milestone moment in the life of every kid is it not?). I noticed that she was leaning completely forward, with her head tucked down.
“What did you drop?” I asked her.
She slowly raised her head up, caught my eye, and said, “I didn’t drop anything. I just can’t bear to look at them, Dad. I don’t know what to do.”
In that moment, since we weren’t going anywhere, I looked at her and said the only thing I honestly could say: “I understand, sweet girl. I know. I feel the same way sometimes. It’s ok.”
A few nights later I asked her if it was alright to include this story in my reflection, and I told her again that what she said was just true. “That’s about the most honest thing I’ve heard in a while,” I told her. I just can’t bear to look sometimes.
The third image is this:
Last week, I asked Jeremy to move the icon of the crucifixion into the nave, to hang it there on the column next to my chair. I need it close to me these days as I hear the news full of such suffering and pain. I think we all need it close to us, to provoke us a bit to wonder how this image of God entering into and taking into Godself the suffering of the world in order to embody reconciliation in the person of Jesus, how this image—and the truth it conveys—might connect with our own suffering.
What is it in us that craves a clean and domesticated God, a more polished and polite Jesus whose rough edges are all smoothed away? I wonder: if we were to meditate on the image of a crucifix, an icon that expresses how the suffering of human existence and the compassion of the Divine nature meet, would this change how we see (to name just a few) the opioid crisis and the impulse to numb out, the resistance we have to immigrants (fellow human beings—not “animals”) who are in need, the tragic and terrifying rise in suicides in American culture, the obsession we families have to pack our schedules at all cost rather than taking time to stop and wonder what is really worthwhile, the struggles of older adults taking care of both their older parents and their grandchildren, and on and on.
Given the struggle and sufferings of our lives, do we dare meditate on the crucifixion?
The fourth image is this:
I’ve been reading Mirabai Starr’s new book Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics, and I strongly encourage you to read it too! She offers us truth, I think.
Toward the first part of the book, she reflects on the life of St. Teresa of Avila and how she is an inspiration—and challenge—for those of us safely ensconced in the refuge of the institution. If transformation of our lives is the key and goal of Christian practice—which it is—then Teresa calls us to the carpet on the way the institution resists “going deeper” and opening our hearts to the living presence of God in our hearts. Such transformation demands that we be open to being changed, and we don’t like change, do we?
Mirabai describes a critical moment in Teresa’s life when she experienced a profound conversion, a reorientation. I’ll read it from her book:
It wasn’t until Teresa was in her late thirties that she stumbled upon her Beloved at last and fell headlong into a love affair that would transfigure her life. One day, as she was striding through the convent hallway, she noticed a statue of Christ scourged at the pillar, bound and crowned with thorns. In preparation for an upcoming celebration, someone had left it leaning against the wall. Annoyed, Teresa bent to pick it up and carry it to an appropriate location. This is when her glance caught the gaze of the suffering Christ, and their eyes locked.
And their eyes locked. I wonder, when have your eyes locked with Jesus?
The fifth image is this:
When it comes to images of the crucifix, I think of St. Julian of Norwich, the remarkable 12th century English mystic. Her name was actually not Julian. We honestly don’t know her name; rather, she was an anchorite, a woman dedicated to prayer and relationship who locked herself up in a little room on the side of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich. From that cell, she made herself available to many, many people who were seeking meaning and hope, comfort and truth.
Lady Julian, as she is known, became very ill, having lived through a period of plague that killed about a third of the English population at the time. In her own time of great suffering, the community sent for her priest. Julian survived her illness and wrote about it—thank God, because we have her experience to learn from.
When her priest came to see her, what he did may surprise you. Imagine if Cynthia or I did this. As she tells it:
He set the cross before my face, and said: I have brought the image of your savior; look at it and take comfort from it.
She goes on to reflect how, in that reality of Christ’s own suffering, we realize God’s own connection and unity with us—and us with one another.
Here I saw, she says, a great unity between Christ and us, as I understand it; for when he was in pain we were in pain, and all creatures able to suffer pain suffered with him.
Here is where we find the deepest meaning of our own existence, as we say in our Eucharistic Prayer: by Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father… Here is our hope and our salvation, which Lady Julian describes as intimately embodied in the persons of the Blessed Mother and Jesus:
So our Lady is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed and born of her in Christ, for she who is mother of our savior is mother of all who are saved in our savior; and our savior is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.
Our savior is our true Mother. I’ll just leave that lying there.
Returning to the first image:
So, let us return to the first image again, the image of “Veronica”, the authentic icon of Christ, as we wonder what it means to behold the suffering of Our Lord—and our own lives. Let us wonder together how we resist looking at the suffering of the world around us, and how that, in reality, is identical with how we resist locking eyes with Christ and answering the Spirit’s call on our own lives. Because the presence of Christ is within the suffering soul of every human being—like it or not.
And let us wonder what it would be like to set the cross before our own eyes, not only during this Holy Week but each and every moment of our existence, world without end.
And let us reflect together on how we, ourselves, are called to be authentic icons, vera icons, of Christ in our day and time, how the suffering and redemptive life of Jesus leaves an indelible mark on our own souls. Perhaps we begin to understand, anew, that “being a Christian,” following Jesus, most certainly does leave a mark.
So, I’ll ask you again: When is the last time you locked eyes with the suffering Jesus?
 Mirabai Starr, Wild Mercy: Living the Fierce and Tender Wisdom of the Women Mystics (Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2019), 20.
 Julian of Norwich, Showings Classics of Western Spirituality (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1978), 180.
 Ibid., 210.
Book of Common Prayer, 363.
 Showings, 292.