Monday, August 27, 2012

The Shroud of Turin

The Shroud of Turin is a linen cloth said to have been used to wrap the body of Jesus just after the crucifixion. The unwound shroud left an imprint of a man's face and body, thought by many to be the face of Christ. The Shroud is stored today in the Cathedral at Turin, the in Chapel of the Holy Shroud, built in the 17th century. The Shroud is rarely shown in public. Most recently it was viewed in 2010 by pilgrims, among them Pope Benedict XVI, who called the Shroud "An Icon of Holy Saturday".

The Shroud is at the center of anew book by Thomas De Wesslow, a British art historian called The Sign: The Shroud of Turin and the Secret Resurrection.  de Wesselow is a self described agnostic and this is not a book espousing religious dogma. In fact, the meticulous deconstruction of Shroud 'scholaship' over 2000 years makes unquestioning faith in church teaching seem quaint, if not ridiculous. Those of us raised in the Church fifty years ago were told these are the facts, no questions, period. de Wesselow is not a theologian but  historian and armchair scientist. Whatever his background, he has written a thrilling book, meticulously researched, a page turner.

de Wesselow re tells the story of Easter Day as follows: the tomb of Jesus was visited by Mary Magdalene and Martha. They were to anoint the body, in keeping with Jewish burial ritual. They found instead the Shroud. This visage on linen was shown to the disciples and the apostles (the Twelve) and it is from this cloth, rather than reincarnated flesh and blood,  that the resurrection of Christ from the dead was claimed. So in fact though the ages, the resurrection has been celebrated with out a corporeal presence. That's where dogma comes in. We were to have believed and not questioned two tenets of Catholicism. That Christ is present in his actual flesh and blood in the celebration of the mass. And that he did indeed rise from the dead as a living, sentient human three days after the Crucifixion.

I was a tad saddened in reading this either to have wholeheartedly believed since childhood or feeling suckered and foolish. Is this book an attack on faith? No. It is a convincing human argument based on science, attempting to explain (what the church claims never needs to be explained)  events of 2000 years ago.

De Wesselow points out that the gospels describing Christ's death and Resurrection were written many years after the facts and not by eyewitnesses. Paul, author of the Epistles, never knew Christ, never saw him. He was shown the shroud and again it is form this image that he began to spread the gospels, Resurrection and all.

To me a book is worthwhile if it makes me think and convinces me to at least try to see life in a different way. Thus The Sign is enorrmously worthwhile. If  De Wesselow doesn't write about faith, he does approach history with respect and care,and he tells a tremendous, and to me glorious mystery. The Sign will be one of my favorite books of 2012.

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