The Importance of the Holy Shroud and Christ’s relics

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By BOB BIRD

That is about the only thing that all interested parties agree upon, which would include the skeptics, the eternal doubters, the devoted believers, the curious and the unconvinced. The Shroud of Turin beats the Rosetta Stone, Piltdown Man, Ramses’ mummy, moon rocks, timbers alleged to come from Noah’s Ark. It has been put under microscopic scrutiny from botanists, physicists, photographers, art historians, NASA and JPL gadgets, hematologists, criminologists, Biblical scholars, historians, fiber-optic technicians, computer geeks, textile experts, journalists, biochemists — and that is only half the list.

They all have something worthy to say, even the most outlandishly fringe skeptics, for as their theories are explored, many of which are momentarily triumphant, the Shroud — like the one whom it enclosed — has a way of resurrecting.

The Shroud frightens some people, even Christians. The entire body image, both positive and negative, and especially the Holy Face, can raise goose bumps. I understand this, for when younger, its haunting visage seemed to reach into the depths of my soul. Like a ghost, it reminded me of something more important than myself — of a supernatural and eternal sphere that we will all face someday.

If these feelings are your own, they can be overcome. Now, I find it humbling, awesome and mysterious. And the face? It is that of a noble and self-sacrificing friend, whom I would not greet with a handshake but rather fall upon his bloody feet in rank obeisance and gratitude.

A platoon of lecturers is finding an audience among increasing numbers of people, for humanity is hungry for truth. In an age that worships science, the Shroud suggests a marriage with faith. Many scientists are waiting to pounce — many others have been converted by it.

But also coming to see it are those who find in the world an utter emptiness of purpose. They might be looking for a hope that has been buried, forgotten or misplaced. Others correctly state that they do not need the Shroud as a basis of faith, yet come away with something no Christian denies he needs: a deeper contemplation of the mystery of redemption and the Redeemer.

In coming face-to-face for the first time with the Shroud or its life-sized replica, most are caught unprepared. One teenaged girl said she could stand all day and never tire of looking at it. Another man, retired from nuclear medicine, pronounced it so anatomically perfect that all doubts he might have had were blown away like fog. At a typical presentation, cameras come out, people maneuver for various angles and lighting intensities, and there is usually a gasp when a person cannot make sense of it at first — but then like one of those visual pattern puzzles, it suddenly comes into focus.

Like a treasure long hidden in plain sight, other relics of Christ — some with a limited and legendary history, others quite extensive and proven — are coming to the fore. Yes, Virginia, there really is a Holy Grail. Forget Sir Gallahad, Monty Python or Indiana Jones. It is quite likely on open display at a cathedral in Valencia, Spain. Popes John Paul and Benedict reverently said Mass with it. We likely have a goodly portion of the “INRI” sign, nailed above Christ’s head, declaring his “crime” of treason. There’s also a tunic and the head cloth which absorbed his blood and covered his eyes as he was taken from the cross. Known as the Sudarium, it has been in Oviedo, Spain, since the 600s. Its blood type and other bloody emanations match in perfect congruence with the Shroud. Both have blood type AB.

The hottest controversy, that of the Carbon-14 dating test of 1988, has been put to rest with now scientific certainty: the small samples taken for the destructive tests were from a heretofore unknown repaired area. This has since been proven, to the amazement of scientists. This repair had expertly rewoven cotton into the linen, was hidden with a mordant dye, likely performed in the 1500s. This repair was not spotted by scientists and textile experts earlier, but detected by a middle-class couple using a home computer.

But perhaps the best place to find controversy over Christ’s relics today is no longer in Turin or Oviedo but in Manoppello, Italy. Here we may indeed have the real Veronica, whose pious legend found in the Sixth Station of the Cross might need some readjustments. Byssus cloth is the rarest and most expensive cloth ever manufactured in human history. It makes Chinese silk seem like a dishrag in comparison. Sometimes called “sea silk”, this translucent and semi-transparent cloth, containing iridescent qualities, shows an open-eyed Jesus. Like a hologram, no photograph, mired in a two dimensional plane, can do it justice.

And it cannot be a painting: byssus can be dyed, but cannot hold paint. Its history is nebulous, but it has been recorded well in early Renaissance paintings, medieval icons and Byzantine mosaics. Like the Oviedo Sudarium, it has perfect congruence with the facial portion of the Shroud. Next time you are in Italy, see it yourself — it is on daily display.

All these relics of Christ’s point to the fact that God works through nature. Thus, we might expect him to remain within his own self-imposed boundaries.

It has been neither theology nor pious legends that have indicated all these things, but rather — unexpectedly — one of the fruits of the Age of Science. And what is science, after all, but a study of the manifest works of the God of Creation? Let us now begin to worship him: in daily Mass, which recounts his passion no matter what the season, and in our daily lives amongst each other.

Relics, anyone.

The writer has given more than 30 presentations on the Shroud of Turin in Alaska and the Lower-48. He is also a parishioner at Our Lady of the Angels Church in Kenai.


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