The Shroud

posted 4/6/20

Yesterday the Archdiocese of Turin announced that the mysterious Shroud of Turin will be displayed for veneration on Holy Saturday.  This will be just the 20th time in the known history of the shroud that it will be on display for public viewing.  The Shroud of Turin is a rectangular piece of woven linen measuring 14ft.5in. x 3ft.7in. which has a faint, brownish front-and-back image of a man who bears the marks of scourging and crucifixion, as well as a wound in his side.   Prior to the 14th century, the history of the shroud is obscure.  But there is a long tradition that speaks of a cloth with mysterious healing properties that was brought to the city of Edessa, located in modern-day Turkey, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70A.D.  With the persecution of Christianity by the Roman authorities, the cloth was hidden in the fortified wall that surrounded Edessa.  The shroud remained there for 400 years and was rediscovered in the 6th century when the city walls were being rebuilt.  It was at this time called the “Image of Edessa” and the likeness of the man on the cloth became the template for traditional iconography depicting Our Lord with long hair, beard, large eyes, and flattened nose. 

With the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Edessa eventually came under the control of the Caliphate.  Byzantine armies invaded Edessa in the 10th century, and were able to recover the shroud and bring it to Constantinople.  The cloth disappeared during the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, and it is thought that it was secretly in the possession of the Knights Templar until the 14th century, when it reappeared in France.  A fire in the 16th century damaged the shroud, leaving some burn marks on the linen but not affecting the image itself.  The shroud finally arrived to Turin in 1578. 

Scientists only started to apply modern technology to the shroud with the advent of photography at the end of the 19th century, which revealed that the faint yellowish-brown pigmentation on the cloth is actually a negative image that, when developed, reveals a detailed black-and-white positive image.  Medical examiners have found that the image is anatomically perfect and a scientific examination of the shroud in the 1980s led to the conclusion that the image is not the product of an artist and the bloodstains are authentic.  The presence of the image on the cloth remained a mystery.  Moreover, analysis of pollen samples found on the cloth in the 1990s revealed samples of plants, some of which are found only in the region around Jerusalem. Decay analysis done in the past 10 years dates the fabric to a time range that includes the 1st century A.D. 

There is, of course, no way of proving beyond doubt that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Christ.  But the fact that it has been an object of veneration for so many centuries, and the inability of modern science to explain how the image on the cloth came to be, and the possibility that it could be 2000 years old, allow us to believe that it just might be the burial cloth that the gospel tells us was  found in the empty tomb on Easter morning (John 20:1-9). 

If it is Our Lord’s burial cloth, then the Shroud of Turin is both the garment of both our Lord’s death and His resurrection.  It is the baptismal garment par excellence, for it is through baptism that we receive a share in Our Lord’s death and resurrection.  The white garment that the newly-baptized wear is an image of our rebirth in Christ.  The funeral pall (the white cloth placed on the casket of the deceased) is the sign that the one who has died had received through baptism the life of the risen Christ and thus a share in His victory.   In these days when, especially in northern Italy, sickness and death seem to loom over everything, it is a beautiful gift from the Archbishop of Turin to display the mysterious image to the world that gives us hope in the faith that we profess in a man who rose from the dead, and a God who offers us a share in His eternal life. 

If you are interested in viewing the Shroud of Turin this Saturday, the livestreamed service will begin at 11am our time on 4/11. 

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