A Gesture Toward the Cross

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Of the fifty or sixty Jesus movies made since the invention of cinema, The Passion of the Christ may well be the best, or the worst, depending on your point of view. But amid the relentless, merciless action on the screen, one gesture is hard to forget.

The scene is a parade of felons somewhere along the unruly road from Pilate's palace to the place of crucifixion. One of them falls for the umpteenth time. No one tells the crowd following, and his fall causes a chain reaction.

The camera eye, and indeed our own anxious eye, is fixed at one side of the road, looking perpendicularly across it. Bodies and parts of bodies tumble across the screen. And then we see a plain young woman, no doubt on the way home with her laundry, stopping, trying to see what the hubbub is all about. She spies the fallen figure and feels sorry for him.

As the burly Roman soldiers try to restore order, she pulls one of several cloths from the rope around her waist and begins to cross the dangerous thoroughfare. If she'd have given a thought to her own safety, she'd never have attempted it. It's the sort a thing an innocent child on a noble mission does, dashing out into the middle of a crowded street without looking either way.

She makes it across and begins to pat the face of this stranger, now a bloody mess, offering him some relief. I can't recall whether their eyes meet. Probably not. Then she's yanked to her feet and tossed to the side of the road, and the ragged pilgrimage toward the place of execution continues.

As she watches the crowd go by, we get glimpses of her, puzzled, mystified, twisting one corner of the bloody linen into a knot. As it dangles from her hands, we see something that she doesn't; that's to say, the bloody image of the felon's face on her cloth.

What Mel Gibson has portrayed in this very brief scene isn't a scriptural story as such. It's more of a midrash surrounding the astounding events on the Via Dolorosa.

To this day, the woman remains something of a mystery. At first she was thought to have made other such special guest appearances in the New Testament as perhaps the woman with dysmenorrhea, perhaps Martha the sister of Lazarus, perhaps the wife of Zaccheus or a Roman officer. She did acquire a name, Veronica, but she didn't appear in the earliest martyrologies. She's mentioned in the Gospel of Nicodemus, dated fourth or fifth century. And she regularly appeared in some, but certainly not all, versions of that perennial engine of devotion known as the Stations of the Cross.