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06 March 2018

The St. Veronica story.

Nope, it’s not in the bible. But it’s really popular.

One of St. Francis’s original stations of the cross was when St. Veronica let Jesus wipe off his bloody face on her veil. Some of you have already heard this story, or bits of it.

And others of you are going, “Where’s that found in the bible?” Well, it’s not found in the bible at all. It comes from Christian tradition. It’s a really old tradition, and a really popular story. So popular, it’s still in the traditional stations of the cross. And while I’m trying to discuss the biblical stations of the cross, I feel I still need to give a mention to St. Veronica… ’cause a number of Christians aren’t entirely aware this story’s not in the bible. Some of ’em even remember seeing it in a bible somewhere. But that’s a false memory. It’s really not there. I’m not kidding.

As for whether St. Veronica herself is in the bible… she actually is. She’s traditionally identified as the woman in this story:

Mark 5.25-34 KWL
25 For 12 years, a woman had a bloodflow, 26 and had suffered greatly under many witch-doctors,
spending everything she had, and never improving. Instead she was much worse.
27 Hearing of Jesus, joining the crowd behind him, she grabbed his robe,
28 saying this: “When I grab him—even his robe—I’ll be cured.”
29 Instantly her bloodflow dried up, and she knew her body was cured of its suffering.
30 And instantly Jesus recognized power had gone out from him.
Turning round to the crowd, he said, “Who grabbed my robe?”
31 His students told him, “You see this crowd swarming you, and you say, ‘Who touched me’?”
32 Jesus was looking round to see who’d done it,
33 and the woman, in fear and trembling, knowing what was done to her,
came and fell down before Jesus, and told him the whole truth.
34 Jesus told her, “Daughter, your faith saved you.
Go in peace. Be free from your suffering.”

Christian tradition named this woman Vereníki/“victory-bearer,” which in English becomes Bernice, but in Latin becomes Veronica.

Growth of the legend.

There’s an apocryphal New Testament book called the Acts of Pilate or the Gospel of Nicodemus. It has to do with Jesus’s death and resurrection. It was written in the mid-300s, so obviously it’s not authentic. Veronica shows up in chapter 7 during Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilatus, where supposedly witnesses were called to testify for and against Jesus.

A woman, Vereníki, called out from a distance and said, “I had a bloodflow, and I touched the hem of his robe, and the bloodflow which I had for 12 years was stopped.”

The Judeans said, “We have a Law that a woman’s evidence isn’t to be accepted.”

Not that this’d make any difference to Pilatus.

Her name wasn’t included in the earliest copies of the book. But it was definitely there by the time Eusebius of Caesarea wrote his Church History and connected Veronica to the idea of images of Jesus:

1 But after having remembered this city [Caesarea Philippi] it’s not right to skip a story I happen to remember: 2 The woman with the hemmorhage from the holy gospels, freed from her illness by our Savior, came from this place. Her house is pointed out in the city. Remarkable memorials of the Savior’s kindness to her are there. 3 On a raised stone, by the door of her house, there stands a bronze ikon of a kneeling woman, her hands stretched out as if she’s praying. Facing this, another form of a man in a double robe, stretching his hand toward the woman. By his feet, by the block of stone, some natural herb climbs to the hem of his bronze robe: It’s a cure for all kinds of illnesses. This image is an ikon of Jesus, people say; it exists to this day, and we ourselves saw it when we stayed in the city.

4 It’s not strange that gentiles, who were the recipients of our Savior’s grace long ago, made such things. His apostles Paul and Peter, along with Christ himself, were rendered in paintings, like ikons. It was their custom to pay this honor to anyone whom they regarded as a savior.

Eusebius, Church History 7.18.

Eusebius wasn’t a fan of making statues and ikons of Jesus. He considered it either idolatry, or something which could easily lead to idolatry. But legends began to crop up about how Veronica had a painting of Jesus which she carried around, which cured the sick—which in one myth even cured Emperor Tiberius Caesar of herpes or something. Other stories gave it the ability to quench thirst, cure the blind, and raise the dead.

For a long time, replica paintings of Jesus on cloth became known as “veronicas,” taken from the story—and a new story went round that “Veronica” comes from the Latin vera ikon/“true image.” More than likely that’s a linguistic coincidence, and a clever guess by people who didn’t know the name was originally Greek. Several Italian churches were fond of showing off their veronicas, many of ’em claiming they had the original veronica, the Sudarium/“sweat-cloth” Jesus wiped his face upon. Thing is, some of them are obviously paintings—and not very good ones. You gotta wonder about the Christians who believed in ’em.

Anyway, veronicas were hugely popular in Italy by the time Francis of Assisi came around, started his church, and started doing stations of the cross in it. He had to include her story in his dioramas. And what really cemented the story in Christian tradition was the popular devotional Meditationes uitae Christi/“Meditations on Christ’s Life.” Supposedly St. Bonaventure wrote it, but it was really written around 1300 by Jacobus de Sancto Geminiano, a radical Franciscan friar associated with the Fraticelli. It really fixed the idea of Veronica in Christians’ imagination.

And most likely you’ve seen it depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. ’Cause he had to include all the stations of the cross, y’know. Veronica’s included.

Now, any truth to it? No idea.

Did it happen?

I mean, it’s possible Jesus was permitted to wipe his face on something, and that a devout believer kept the something. Since it was covered in human blood, it was ritually unclean, but since Jesus obviously touched it—especially if his faceprint looked in any way like a face—the believer would’ve considered it highly valuable. Especially after Jesus rose from the dead.

Now, the idea of it becoming an exact replica of Jesus’s face? Meh; I’m inclined to think that’s an exaggeration. Recognizable as Jesus, sure. A photographic image, not so much.

What are the chances of such a relic surviving a century, or even to the present day? Slim. Not impossible, but slim. Churches would have to be extremely careful in preserving it, and for the longest time, churches sucked at that.

As for cloths which perform miracles, we have stories of that in the bible. Paul could touch bandanas and aprons, and Christians would use them to cure the sick. Ac 19.12 Remember, Veronica had been cured by touching Jesus’s robe, not Jesus himself, so there seems to be a bit of precedent for holy cloth. Not enough of a precedent for TV preachers to go selling such cloths to raise money, but still. If such a cloth helps boost our faith in God to cure us, why can’t it be instrumental in curing people?

As for how the story helps us remember Jesus’s suffering… well, he got blood all over someone’s veil. But it doesn’t do as good a job as other stations of the cross. This one feels more like a break from his suffering, rather than another facet of his suffering. And since it’s not bible, there’s not a lot to meditate upon. It’s why I tend to skip it and go with the more biblical stations.