As you follow the cross along the Via Dolorosa, with your pilgrim group, with your friends, perhaps from your church, people you know and know well, you will be passed by so many people. There will be shopkeepers and shoppers, people walking to their next appointment, women with children, men sitting drinking tea together, smoking a cigarette. At some of the junctions in the road you will find groups of soldiers, on the lookout, not for you, but for others. Children, youths, young and old women, young and old men, a Franciscan priest, an Orthodox nun, they will all pass you. And you will see their faces but you won’t know them.
Living in London I’m surrounded by people I don’t know. Sitting on a bus or the Tube, crammed into a rush-hour compartment, squeezed almost intimately against someone I have never met, and will presumably never meet again is an almost daily occurrence. And when I’ve flicked through the free paper lying on the seat, sometimes I look up and look around and see the people sitting, standing there and try to imagine who they are and what their story is. Each is a fully rounded person with a real life, not just there to add colour and context to my world. Each is as real and complex as me, with their joys and their sorrows, their anxieties, the stresses of the day, a home life, a hinterland of family and friends. And very rarely and especially in London do you get to speak to any of these strangers. There is an unwritten set of rules of behaviour on public transport in London and we abide by them.
I remember the agony of childhood and standing at the bus stop with my mum or my grandma. All of a sudden she would talk to the person next to her in the queue. ‘Nice weather’. ‘Have you seen the price of beef?’ ‘I was hoping to get my washing out today.’ They didn’t know each other but a conversation would develop. The unknown person wasn’t so unknown any longer and points of connection were made. ‘Oh, you must know our Fred’. ‘Yes we used to work in the factory on the High Street.’ ‘I remember; you’re Mabel’s girl aren’t you!’ ‘Yes, were you at school together?’ I listen on in amazement. What do they say? There are six degrees of separation in the human nexus. It was a theory arrived at by the Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy back in 1929. In most situations you only need to go six moves to find a relationship and realise that the stranger is no stranger to you and you can give them a name.
Jesus was an ‘out of town’ man and so apart from those who had arrived in Jerusalem with him he knew almost no one. He was stumbling along, being beaten by the soldiers to make progress. Simon was carrying his cross, he could see him in front, but the crowds to the side were a blur of faces, of unknown faces, watching, ignoring him. He was used to unknown faces. For three years he had been moving from place to place preaching, teaching, healing. He would enter a town and meet a crowd but quickly those who were unknown would become known to him – Zacchaeus up his tree, blind Bartimaeus, Simon the Pharisee. He could name them all, remember them all. Some had become friends – Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with whom he had been staying. But many people remained faces, unknown to him, though he was known to them. Faces, faces, people, people, nameless.
A woman steps from the crowd. He doesn’t know her. She takes a cloth she is carrying and wipes the blood and the sweat from his face, from his brow, from running into his eyes and making them sting. He looks up and their eyes meet – kind eyes she had, young eyes, clear and sweet. She continues to wipe him clean and the image of her is imprinted on his memory and the image of him is imprinted on her heart.
It was a brief encounter, a chance meeting, a hasty gesture and over as quickly as it began, and then he was moved on and the soldiers pushed her back into the crowd and she was left there holding the cloth.
This is one of those stations that is part of tradition rather than drawn scripture. The woman had no name but the cloth was venerated by the church and still is in art and literature and she was given a name, Veronica, which perhaps means ‘true image’ because the tradition is that the face of Jesus was not just implanted in her heart but on that cloth.
And each nameless person that we see is a true image of God, and you and I are true images of God. Remembering it changes how we see people, changes how we see our self. Look around you at the unknown, unnamed faces, they bear God’s image, pray for them, perhaps they are praying for you, the unknown person to them.
Lord, you know me
and you love me.
May I love
even those I don’t know
for they bear your true image.