May 13, 2010
On Sunday May 2, 2010, Pope Benedict joined the thousands of pilgrims who are now visiting the Shroud of Turin. For the first time since the Jubilee year of 2000, the Shroud has been placed on display from April 10 until May 23, 2010. Already two million people have reserved their three to five minutes to view what is perhaps the most intriguing “relic” of the Passion.
The Shroud is a linen sheet, 14-feet-long and 3.5-feet-wide. It is woven with a herringbone pattern used in ancient Egypt before the time of Christ. The Shroud is an ancient burial cloth that once wrapped the body of a man. It now bears his image. The man was scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified and had his side pierced with a lance. The man’s body shows no signs of putrefaction and had been wrapped in the Shroud for less than 36 hours.
No one questions the antiquity of the Shroud. But how old it is remains disputed. The earliest historical evidence places it in 1357 A.D. in the hands of the knight Geoffroy de Charny in Lirey, France. A local bishop at the time expressed some skepticism about its origins. By 1453, the Shroud came into the possession of the House of Savoy in northern Italy. The Shroud was eventually bequeathed to the Pope by King Umberto II of Italy upon his death in 1983. It resides now in the Cathedral of Turin where it continually attracts the interests of believers and skeptics alike.
It is not impossible that the Shroud of Turin came from the East, possibly Edessa. In the first century, Edessa was a major city on the Silk Road. It was also the home of one of the earliest Christian communities. When the first Christians left Jerusalem and traveled to Antioch, they were already two-thirds of the way to Edessa. A strong tradition places Thomas and Jude Thaddeus in Edessa shortly after the Crucifixion. And, already from the sixth century, there are stories about a cloth with an image of Jesus in Edessa.
In 1988, the results of carbon dating put in question the antiquity of the Shroud. On the basis of the tests, some were saying that the Shroud was an artifact of the Middle Ages. However, by 2005, scientists were already pointing out the flaws in the carbon 14 dating process that was used. The Shroud once suffered some damage in a fire in 1532 and then in 1534 it was repaired by the Poor Clares. The radio-carbon analysis was flawed because it was taken from the parts repaired and these parts had become polluted. New studies say that the Shroud of Turin is much older than the 14
th century. The Shroud of Turin is almost twice as old as the radiocarbon dating shown, and quite probably 2000 years old.
In 1898, the Italian lawyer Secondo Pia photographed the Shroud for the first time. The result was something never seen before: a photographic negative of a crucified man. Along with new scientifically enhanced photographs, taken in 1978 and again in 2002, experts now recognize extraordinary aspects of this image. They are able to see anatomical details and contusions which only a pathologist living today would understand. The very fact that photographic film is just a recent invention, less than 200 years old, raises the question that scientists are still trying to answer. How was the image imprinted on the cloth?
On the Shroud, there are actual blood stains that correspond to the wounds of the crucified man. It is human blood, scientifically demonstrable, not paint. Experts have shown that the blood settled on the cloth first and then the image of the man was imprinted. This means that, under the bloodstains, there is no image.
The image is on the Shroud even where the body was not in contact with it. The image itself is superficial, that is, only on the upper fibers of the cloth. It is detailed and actually three-dimensional. These details defy the craft of even the most skilled artist. Scientists simply cannot conclusively say what process imprinted the image on the Shroud. Some suggest a very natural, complex chemical process. Others suggest a photo-radiant effect linked to the Resurrection.
For more than a century now, scholars and scientists have studied and scrutinized the Shroud. The Church has never made a pronouncement on its authenticity. Instead, she has left it to experts to tell us whether or not this was the very burial cloth that was wrapped around the body of Jesus when he was placed in the tomb. Faith is not opposed to reason. Serious historic inquiry and scientific research have their place.
Most recently historian Barbara Frale used computer analysis of photographs to study the Shroud. She discovered words barely visible in Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. She identified these words as the residue from a papyrus scroll placed next to the corpse. According to the custom of the time, an executed criminal would be buried in a common grave and then, twelve months later, his family could claim the body. Hence there was the need for a death certificate identifying the body. This particular scroll placed in the Shroud comes from the time of Tiberius. Frale reads it as saying, “Jesus of Nazareth, 16
th year of Tiberius’ reign, sentenced to death, removed in the ninth hour.” Her discovery now awaits the scrutiny of scholars.
On May 2, Pope Benedict XVI prayed in front of the Shroud. The Pope called the Shroud “an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified, and injured on his right side.” Like every icon, the Shroud opens for us a door to mystery. Standing before it, we are faced with the mystery of suffering and death. We are confronted with man’s inhumanity to man. The image represents the passion that continues in every time and in every place, as we face the sufferings and sins of this world.
Looking at the image of the Shroud imprints on our soul a deeper appreciation of the Suffering Christ who is present in all those who suffer today. But the Shroud also lets burst upon us the mysterious light of the Resurrection. The Crucified Jesus does not remain in the grave. Life is stronger than death. The cloth is left behind. The image remains to move us to love all who suffer, in a word, to love one another.