She sat there, quietly, at the table in the break room. The first thing I noticed about her was her dark, gentle eyes. Large and welcoming. The next thing I noticed was her distinctive teal mask. The sign, at our workplace, of an unvaccinated worker.
The teal mask.
“Any unvaccinated staff members will be required to wear the teal colored N95 mask at all times,” the notice read. Blessed to have received a religious exemption allowing me to continue to work, I had to be tested weekly and wear the special mask. I was grateful to make these small sacrifices to remain at my post.
But in returning to the workplace, I was surprised at my own reticence to display this outward sign of my inner conviction. I had risked losing my job for my beliefs but now felt qualms about the minor martyrdom of the teal mask. Such a mark would set me apart when I just wanted to get back to normal, to fit in, to not stand out.
To not stand out.
There is a social phenomenon known as the “spiral of silence.” This spiral is based upon fear, fear of being set apart or ostracized for our views, fear that causes us to remain silent instead of voicing our convictions. We remain silent out of insecurity or a mistaken belief that no one shares our viewpoint, thus enabling the “spiral” of silence.
In this vacuum of silence, however, a counter-narrative takes the megaphone. The louder, bolder voice dictates the rules and the agenda. Perhaps many disagree with the loudest voice, but no one speaks up in disagreement. We begin to think that no one shares our conviction because no one voices our viewpoint. It takes one witness who speaks and proclaims our belief to show us that we are not alone, perhaps we are even in the silent majority.
So, I chatted with the nurse in the teal mask. She was young and joyful, and busy catching up with her little ones at home via FaceTime, the way so many late-shift moms sacrificially tuck their children into bed at night. I turned to go, and then I asked her name.
“Veronica,” she replied.
In the traditional accounts of the Passion of Christ we meet such a woman. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church tells us Veronica was “a woman of Jerusalem who, according to legend. . .offered her head-cloth to the Lord to wipe the blood and sweat from His face on the way to Calvary. He returned it with His features impressed upon it.”
Her name, in fact, means “true image,” because her bold embrace of Christ in the public square resulted in His precious gift to her. Christ imprinted His image on her veil. She was given His thank you, in His bloodied, grateful Holy Face.
“Consider how the holy woman named Veronica, seeing Jesus so afflicted, and His face bathed in sweat and blood, presented him with a towel, with which He wiped His adorable face, leaving on it the impression of His holy countenance,” writes St. Alphonsus Liguori in his text for the Sixth Station of the Cross.
“Seeing Jesus so afflicted,” and very publicly afflicted. I’d never given much thought to the circumstances surrounding Veronica’s bold witness. She does what so many in the crowd long to do for Christ but lack the courage to do. She stands with Christ in the open street. She lets herself be marked, publicly, as His follower. Consoling Him and sharing in His Passion is her privilege. The danger, the menacing guards, the possible retribution, the scorn, and the shame do not deter her.
How easy it is to be a silent Christian. How difficult it is to be an unashamed Christian.
Much of the crowd that dark day in Jerusalem may have had compassion for Christ. But one stepped forward to give witness. Veronica, in her action, defeats the spiral of silence. Her unashamed witness strengthens not only Christ but all of those who witness her action.
Many of us ask ourselves these days how we can witness for Christ. What can I do? I am only a teacher, only a businessman, only a parish priest. What difference can I make? I am not in government, not in the Curia, not in a position of real influence.
But neither was Veronica.
With her, we can step off the safe curbside, out into the messy fray, and own our Christianity. In a time of unprecedented persecution of Christians in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and under brutal regimes such as China, in a time of crippling fines and draconian restrictions in European countries, our witness can be a small measure of solidarity and strength.
And so, I returned to work the next week, wearing my teal mask. Co-workers did the double-take, as I expected. Some kept their distance or regarded me with apprehension. Others approached me more warmly, with a secret look of quiet solidarity. Not one person said anything.
Americans like to use the expression, “that’s just not the hill I choose to die on.” But Christ chose a hill to die on. Calvary. Our witness is a simple choice to know Him on His way, to let others see that we know Him, and that we love Him more than we love being accepted.
And, as we do so, our focus is on Him. We bear the insult with Him. We bear the cold stare with Him. We bear the scoffing and the scourging along with Him. He is going up to Calvary alone, and He invites us to journey with Him. Consoling Him along the way, we can draw strength from the witness of Veronica, and so, in turn, offer a true image of Christ to the world.
*Image: The Way to Cavalry by Jacopo Bassano, c. 1554-55 [National Gallery, London]. The Virgin follows her son and wipes her tear-soaked cheek. Saint Veronica holds out her veil to Christ, on which the image of his face will become miraculously imprinted.
You may also enjoy:
William Butler Yeats’ Veronica’s Veil
Brad Miner’s The Veil