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Shroud, Gospel and New Evangelization, 1st part

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

A few days ago, Giuseppe Ghiberti died. A lifetime dedicated to God, to the Word and to the mystery of the Holy Shroud: Monsignor Giuseppe Ghiberti, Italian priest, theologian and biblical scholar, died a few days before his 89th birthday. Considered one of the world's leading experts on the Sindone of Turin (on which he published several books), he was honorary president of the Diocesan Commission of Rome for the Holy Shroud and ecclesiastical assistant to the International Shroud Center. In his memory, we publish the transcript of this lecture given on May 21, 2019, at the Pontifical Theological Faculty of Southern Italy. We are grateful to Roberto Vitale, a member of Sindone Sicilia, for the article's cession for publication.

Shroud, Gospel and New Evangelization

1. Introduction and methodological approach

I cordially thank you for the invitation extended to me by this alma Theological Faculty to speak on the Shroud. It is a topic that came into my life accidentally: because I am from Turin and because a professor of younger years pulled me into it before the Lord called him to Himself with a quick illness. As the years passed and the renewal on the one hand of invitations to talk about the Shroud, on the other hand of commitments to take an interest in the problems concerning it - beginning with the preservation of the Shroud in its materiality and then above all with the problem of its relationship with both the world of science and the world of pastoral care -, the question about the meaning, the importance, of such a demanding interest in this reality and its significance became more and more vivid.

The particular of the title proposed to this speech of mine "and new evangelization" seems to me to resonate precisely, at least in one aspect, with the problem I have enunciated in a much more personal way, on the threshold still of any theoreticality but also the result of a sensibility aroused and made acute by the situation we are living. With a very simple formulation (I hope not simplistic) I would summarize the interest of the Shroud discourse we are opening in the question: what is the relationship of the Shroud to the present time? But in the meantime we feel the need to address a preliminary one: what is the relation of the Shroud to Sacred Scripture?

The center of interest of our discussion seems to me to have its implicit but necessary reference to the great question summarized in the expression "truth of the Shroud." How many questions such a simple expression raises: when is that truth realized? When does one recognize it, that truth, for what it really is? When is it treated for what it is; when is it proposed for what it is, what it wants to be? How many things in life are betrayed in this regard?

It makes one wonder why we insist so much on the Shroud: it is then only one sign among many, a means among many; yet, it has its own uniqueness, it attracts/makes us more aware of how much what we have received has cost!

In fact, those who approach it feel a totally exceptional invitation. It is not for nothing that 21 years ago the Pope called it a "mirror of the gospel."

Let us begin with a reductive clarification, which leads to downplaying the interest in this Reality: it is one of the most significant examples of the relative of a series of means/helps for salvation (it may or may not be there - as happened with the awareness of many saints, who had no inkling of its existence), but also of God's free irruption into history - of everyone and everyone (which is fulfilled as/when he wants, with those he wants - I think of the parents he has chosen for each of us: yours are not mine, but for me and for you they are his decisive choice).

My own story can be a significant example of this statement. Up to a certain point my path did not encounter the Shroud (my initial choices for a life orientation were not caused by awareness of its existence); then there were encounters of varying modality and intensity, and for me this presence took on determinative significance (though not absolutely conditioning for my faith journey). The present moment, of advanced age, makes me think that the time of interest in this reality, of dialogue with it, of attention and recourse to its message, does not cease. Indeed, the journey of these years has confirmed me on its ability to speak to people of all ages and also to mediate messages of comfort, of true and proper gospel.

All these considerations start the treatment of the fundamental problem: in evangelization, which is so problematic, is it appropriate today to insist so much on the importance of this sign? It is necessary to identify some basic conditions and to be clear about what one proposes and expects from a Shroud "discourse," also because a subject that should be free by definition turns out instead to arouse even intolerant passionalities: for some to be interested in the religious value of the presence of this holy shroud is a sign of obscurantism or even bad faith, for others not to declare themselves "believers" (but of what faith?) in the Shroud is a sign of more or less larvae modernism.

Therefore, the discourse we are initiating is placed in a precise perspective: it is aware of the relativity of the presence of the Shroud in relation to salvation and the Church, but at the same time it is aware of the importance that this reality has in the life and for the faith of many people and in this precise historical moment. If it is true that there are many more saints who have not known the existence of the Shroud, it seems to me that today many people are helped, stimulated for a varied journey of their faith by passing through this path, helped by the encounter with this sign. This conviction drives me in my interest and I think it also holds the interest of those who look at this mirror or echo of the gospel for themselves, as well as those who discover in it an instrument of pastoral work, of evangelization - today even more than yesterday.

2. Shroud and Gospels

In relation to the Shroud, a comparison with the Gospels therefore immediately but with gradual movement becomes necessary with reference to two questions:

(a) Do Shroud and Gospels witness similar events?

b) Do the similarities lead one to think of a direct relationship present at the origin of the two realities (namely, that the Shroud is the burial cloth used for the burial of Jesus)?

As to the first question, it can be stated that the Shroud presents an image, which "recounts" an affair of suffering (due to torture culminating in a crucifixion , which ended with the death by crucifixion of the protagonist, followed by his burial; the name of the protagonist is not given).

The Gospels narrate the final event of a man's life as an event of suffering (of torture and crucifixion), concluded by the death and burial of that man, known as Jesus of Nazareth. The demonstration of the two claims is not particularly contested. It is easy to admit that the signs of blood effusions scattered all over the body surface of the Man of the Shroud originated from a scourging, that the effusion of blood (qualified as cadaverous) from the wound on the right side of the chest occurred after the death of the crucified man, that the numerous small drippings of blood on the head were caused by the use of a torture instrument equipped with multiple points.

With regard to the second question, comparison with these findings raises the question of the relationship that runs between the two realities: of the event that gave rise to the sindonic image and the event described in the Gospel narrative. An immediate impression of coincidence between the two "narratives" stops at the ante-mortem torture stage, while it clashes with some details of the Gospel account of the burial. I begin with a summary of the data and consequent reasoning.

The sufferings attested by the shroud image speak of a male, who was savagely beaten on the face and body, suffered blunt wounds on the head, face, and all over the body; in particular, the wounds on the hands and feet attest to the torture of crucifixion (with the manifestations of the blood falling down the arms); the nature of the blood leaking from the wound on the right side, which has characteristics of a condition that is no longer vital but postcadaveric, attests to the now completed death of the crucified man; the neat position of the corpse within the sheet is the result of a dignified burial procedure. The absence of any sign of decay of the corpse and the cloth itself (with total absence of signs of even incipient putrefaction) is a sign of a postmortem condition that must be recognized as exceptional.

Exceptionality, actually, begins when the corpse of Jesus is given an entirely unusual treatment. Courageous friends reappear and obtain from Pilate the body of the crucified one: Joseph of Arimathea, previously unknown, and Nicodemus, who in the Johannine account completes a journey with an entirely positive trajectory, starting from a falsely motivated sympathy and now arriving - with Joseph - at the acceptance of Jesus, lifeless, in the deposition from the cross and becoming almost, in the Johannine perspective, the main protagonist. The intervention of these "friends" culminates in the preparation and execution of the burial (picking up some elements already present in the Lazarus account in Jn 11), for which they use certain burial cloths. Meanwhile, the three days of Jesus' prophecy (Jn 2:19) concerning the temple of his body begin.

3. Exegetical discussion

In the years close to the immediate postwar period in the exegetical field there was lively discussion about the compatibility of the Gospel account with the shroud reality (the remembrance goes, at this time, to my well-deserving friend Joseph Blinzler, who could not make peace with the dissonance of othónia sindòne in the Synoptics and John).

Normally, it was believed that the brief synoptic narrative of the postmortem events of Jesus' corpse was compatible with the sindonic datum: sindòn may point to a reality such as the "Shroud" (although other possibilities are not ruled out), and while the space of mystery remains great, it does not reach/constitute [al]incompatibility, however.

The difficulty is encountered in the Johannine account, which no longer speaks of sindòn but of othónia in the plural (aggravated by the diminutive form: not othónema othónion) and of a soudárion that had a relationship with the face. But othónia in the New Testament koiné (with anticipatory examples in the LXX) are not necessarily "bandages" (according to the old CEI translation), but "cloths," which are much more generic (new CEI translation); the soudárion may have a relationship to the face in the function of a chin strap (for Jesus' burial it is said that the shroud had been on his head, which more readily suggests the chin strap around the face). Our translations report "bandages" or "cloths" and "shroud." Because othónia is diminutive form (of othónē), it explains the choice to translate with "bandages," which are usually narrow and long (a choice also present in other languages, as in German "Binden" or French "bandelettes." while the English with "linen cloths" of the Revised Standard Version avoids taking a position), but because the diminutive in the evolutionary stage of the lexicon of the New Testament koiné has lost its formal poignancy, the new CEI translation" chooses the more generic "cloths," which does not give specific suggestions about the small or large, wide or narrow, format of the object. I will also use "cloths."

Further singularities of the Fourth Gospel are the explicit reference to Jewish burial customs and especially the reference to the presence of burial cloths in one of the scenes at the empty tomb. For the synoptics, the mention of the "Shroud" stops at the burial, with the sole exception of Lk24:12, which is probably the result not of Lucan tradition but of absorption of Johannine tradition.

The reference to Jewish burial customs is often seen as testimony to the accuracy of the description offered by John of the details of the burial "with the Jews: one would therefore be inclined to say that according to John his description of Jesus' burial coincides with everything and only what he records at this time. It should be immediately noted, however, that in this first description, there is an absent mention of the shroud in John 19, which will be mentioned only later in chapter 20. So, an intention of completeness is not present; and this allows us to speculate that perhaps such an intention is not present in the description of chapter 20 either: John narrates what took place; he does not bother to report everything that took place. More so, he does not bother to report the manner of the burial, especially not exhaustively.

Much more likely his interest is to attest that Jesus crucified had a proper burial, with all the dignity possible in that circumstance. His corpse was honored, and thus the dishonor of the wrongdoer's death ended at or even before the corpse was laid down from the cross, when Jesus rendered or transmitted the Spirit.

It will therefore probably be unprofitable to resort to that statement to say that those very details correspond (even, as is sometimes claimed, precisely and exclusively) to the mode of burial in the Jewish world of that time. The discourse on historiographical intentionality is always so delicate: often it is denied-even radically-where in fact the communicative intention is present; at other times it is affirmed where the commitment to information is far more tenuous and plays an entirely marginal function. But for this very reason it is all the more remarkable in our case that the othóniasians are recalled, proving that the particular is close to the evangelist's heart.

3.1 The mystery of the Sabbath

The end of John chapter 19 has the dryness of a protocol: "There therefore, since it was the day of the Parasceve of the Jews and since the tomb was near, they laid Jesus". The resumption of the narrative in Jn 20:1 has already passed the two-night leap and overlooks the morning of the next day, which will then always be called "the third day." No mention of what had happened in that time frame. What can be told about a dead person? The total inability of any relationship with people and the outside world had been consummated, and the last act of life had been placed on him by others, "laying him down", with the intention of never returning to take him back (save Magdalene's intention, as a rant). Since then the longest day has passed in its muteness. The evangelist resumes the narrative, when the Sabbath has already passed.

Yet, for human history, that Sabbath will have an indescribable significance and importance, even as those who look into it never cease to ask the question of meaning. The one in whom "it was life" is now totally at the mercy of others, in the absolute inability to relate, to decide, to interact. It has been said that, in being born, the Word had asked the earth for the one thing that even the poorest man cannot do without, a mother; now he has lost even the possibility of recourse to it. And it is still the most total participation in the human condition, by the one who, though more than man, is totally man.

The human condition shared in the situation of a corpse begins to enjoy a status of exceptionality: the one condemned to an ignominious death because he is "king of the Jews" (but Pilate who had yielded to the leaders of the Jews by condemning Jesus for that title had actually committed his authority to authentically declaring with the cartouche on the cross the nature of that condemned man) receives the honor of an exceptional burial, even if necessarily prepared in the celerity of the Parasceve. But it is still burial, darkness and silence.

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