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Sindone, Gospel and New Evangelization, Part 2

We present the second part of the article of Monsignor Ghiberti. May it be our humble homage to a great man.




3.2 Chapter 20: "Day One of the Sabbaths"


Chapter 20 opens in the same place and climate, but several hours have passed-a short time, but one that no human being will ever be able to measure. The Johannine account describes four scenes that took place there, at the tomb. They follow one another in a crescendo of testimony aimed at illustrating what had happened to that corpse.

In the first (vv. 1-2), the overturned stone of the tomb only leaves Magdalene to note the absolute emptiness, darkness and silence, which also already exercise the first embryonic function of witnesses (if he is not there, where is he? why is he not there?), while Magdalene, also a witness, reacts by bringing an announcement.

The second scene (vv. 3-10) features the two disciples, Peter and that anonymous man who dominates the entire scene in the second part of the Gospel, and witnesses this time are the burial cloths, while total silence persists, with the emptiness of the corpse. It is a singular scene in the sequence of the stories at the tomb and of all the Easter stories, not only Johannine: it is the only time that the burial cloths intervene as direct witnesses, the only scene at the tomb with protagonists from the group of disciples, the only one not concluded with the announcement by the witnesses, among whom there is a reaction of faith that is not yet complete, as it is not yet accompanied by the "knowledge" of Scripture. Unique, very special relief in this exceptionality is held by the cloths, which became interlocutors with the disciples.

In the third (vv. 11-13) the cloths are no longer named, because the attention is totally captured by the presence and question of the angels, but the presence of the cloths continues to be thought of in the background, while the absence of that "body" that had been placed within them is emphasized: the absence is affirmed of the corpse, not of the cloths, which it is spontaneous to consider present, so present as to suggest that the corpse returned to life has assumed the condition of the primitive equilibrium of man who has no need to cover his body.

The concluding scene (vv. 14-18) witnesses the resumption of the vital relationship between the one who until then was only a lifeless body and now has resumed a vital condition that is no longer limited to the earthly dimension alone, for it is realized in perfection and totality in the ascent to the Father.

After that, the cloths will no longer be spoken of, for from there on it will be a triumph of presence and life.

But we return to the tomb accounts, particularly the second and third scenes. Attention is drawn to the absence of the body, all the more highlighted by the presence of the cloths now devoid of their contents, which was the reason for their presence here. By now precisely through their emptiness the cloths have become witnesses to life. We do not pause on the meaning of terminology and description on which it seems to me that the sayable has been said, to focus attention on the dynamics of the scene.

Four, as we saw, are the moments of the narrative and each with an outcome that prepares the next. Magdalene's announcement introduces the entrance of the two qualified disciples; the total silence and absence of announcement on their part leaves free attention to the cloths in their condition of emptiness and disorder; Magdalene's disorientation prepares for the surprise of the subsequent dialogue with the risen One, who from absent suddenly becomes present, and who will be concluded by the final announcement or testimony. Of particular importance is the very nuanced mention of the body.

Indisputably and mysteriously absent from the disciples' scene, it is already the object of an albeit incipient faith on the part of one of them (both, Peter and the Beloved, did not yet know the Scripture), without, however, concluding in testimony: unlike the Magdalene, the disciples end their visit without announcement consequences (v. 10). And if faith is-though not yet concluded-it has for its object the reconstitution of the human, hence bodily, reality of the Lord. From witnesses of absence, the cloths thus take on the efficacy of a reference to that body that is still unseen (or no longer seen).

In the third scene the subdued mention of the body takes on immense value: it is the conclusion of a reduced yet fundamental discourse on the "body" of Jesus in our Gospel. It had begun almost

quietly in chapter 2, in the narrative voice of the evangelist, who interpreted Jesus' challenge "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" with the statement "but he spoke of the temple of his body." And contextually the evangelist was making reference to the time of Jesus' resurrection, when the disciples would remember what he had said and believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. Throughout the Gospel account, the term "body" would not return until the moment of death on the cross and burial: Joseph of Arimathea asks for and obtains from Pilate the body of Jesus and goes to get it from the cross along with Nicodemus. This is the moment when the othónia appear, with which they wrap (properly "bind") the "body" of Jesus," the moment when the temple of Jesus' body appears destroyed and the fulfillment of the prediction begins. In the scenes of the discovery of the empty tomb, "on the day after the Sabbath" and thus three days after the destruction of the body-temple, we see the burial cloths without the body, because Jesus has risen. And it is this temple of his body that Jesus has resurrected. The appearance of the pseudo-ortholan to the Magdalene will immediately confirm this: the risen Jesus, with his body, can be touched but does not allow to be held. Thus, the challenge issued by Jesus at the beginning of the gospel has been concluded and fulfilled, and the reality of the body-temple remains confirmed and consecrated: the most holy humanity of Jesus having become the place par excellence of man's encounter with the Divinity. It seems that the burial cloths have lost interest, but this is not correct. The cloths of the body-temple had become, in the divine economy, cultic linens, performing a testimonial function on behalf of that body which had constituted itself temple, victim and priest (it seems to me that the distance from the teaching of Hebrews is not great). When especially in Eastern sensibility and liturgy one hears about the "shrouds" being spread over altar tables in preparation for the Eucharistic sacrifice, our Western sensibility reacts with reserve, because of the impression that we are witnessing an exaggeration or even a drift of sentiment. It seems to me, however, that a careful analysis of the Johannine narrative suggests a confident acceptance of this appearance.


3.3. The message of the silent witnesses


Thus continues the message of a witness as silent as it is effective. John had said at the end of the initial temple scene that Jesus' words about the temple of his body would be remembered after the resurrection and that the disciples would believe the Scripture and the word spoken by him. We have not yet fully ascertained this in the mysterious scene of the two disciples at the tomb. It is indeed a strenuous (bumpy?) road to faith in the Risen One for both the two men and the Magdalene (and no less for us), and it will be resolved only by the presence and voice of Jesus in the last scene, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and have believed."]

The cloths are thus a liminal witness to faith, an indication of the ways of the journey of faith. And they intervene as an appeal to memory and a stimulus for the retrieval of Scripture: only when this has taken place is the process complete.

Through the reference to the body the cloths enter into the economy of that new creation to which Jesus' resurrection gives rise. It will be the great appearances of the Risen One that will make it explicit (in the second part of chapter 20), especially through the mode of the gift of the Spirit (the breath, which no doubt echoes the creative act by which God gives life to the first man in Gen. 2:7 and the efficacy of the power for the remission of sins; but already at the tomb the abandonment of the burial cloths had occurred, manifesting in the triumph of the resurrection the original balance of a body that does not fear nakedness. And the moment it manifests, it disappears. This seems to me a clear indication for the mission-function of the shroud even today, in our midst. When it disappears, it has not finished its function/mission.

With great emotion we become aware of a very rich fact concerning Jesus' burial cloths: they are by no means a secondary detail, but an indication and valuable component of the journey of faith suggested by John. I think it is an open track for work that is still far from maturity and that promises fruits of great interest for science and for service to the gospel.

Our reflection today is also in this line of engagement. The realization of what it was in the beginning - admittedly, unconsciously on the part of the first witnesses - is an incentive not to leave such a rich instrument of proclamation idle, even in the secrecy of its apparent muteness. What we do not know, except by resorting to hypotheses that are not easily verifiable, is what kind of reception and what reactions of vital interest its presence initially aroused. It is the fate of many realities that have come down to us over the centuries; and it is the reason for the trembling, for the fear of not distinguishing between the valid and the unreliable offerings of a tradition that may be misleading or even harmful.


4. In the present


The awareness of a path made about its possible (and now I think we can say very probable) origins gives serenity to the continuation in the present and urges us not to neglect any clue from the past. And in the meantime, one must respond to the commitment to carefully analyze this still mysterious present.

The present-the dimension of today, the characteristics of our world-shows curiously contrasting features such as, in particular, a radical demand for objectivity and severity of discourse accompanied by a curious readiness to accept proposals that are scientifically groundless and sometimes even undignified. It seems to me that, beginning with the study we have summarized, the Shroud meets all the requirements of serious scientific research. It is only necessary to present it with the grace and precision it deserves.

Ever since its presence in our land has been documented, there has been a constant presence of a pre-scientific awareness that has seen in that complex an immediate relationship with the final event of Jesus' life. The basis of this phenomenon is the knowledge of the gospel account and the spontaneous observation of the correspondence of the two "accounts," the literary one of the gospel and that of the image of the shroud. This relationship-prescientific, not irrational-continues to establish itself spontaneously, in the same way, today. Perhaps today there is heightened sensitivity to this message, and certainly its communication has reached a degree of diffusion unthinkable until recently. And it has not lost in motivation and emotion for those who approach it. Even it is not properly conditional on faith, because the dialogue with the man who suffers and lies in death is initiated without a proclamation of awareness and qualification of a creed. My own poor experience over many years has verified the influence of this juxtaposition both at the ecumenical level (Protestants, Jews, even Muslims) and at the level of dialogue with non-believers. Certainly prejudices are far from absent and the passionate register undermines both the reading of the story attested by the cloth and sensitivity to that same story. The Shroud also enters the category of proposals: very suggestive, but proposals, not imposed. But many on the occasion of this proposal feel the suggestion for an assent: its nature remains mostly in God's secret.

The Shroud adds nothing to what faith tells me and documents of all kinds illustrate. Yet, with that image present to our consciousness/fantasy, meditation on the suffering(s) of Jesus takes on another significance. The Gospel proclamation mediated by this image becomes easily engaging, beginning with its appeal to my person. And beyond me it proves to be effective in engaging distant people, who until recently thought of themselves as unthinkable interlocutors. Perhaps it is not out of place here to speak of a beginning of a "new evangelization" perspective, in an albeit generic, almost vulgar sense. The very feature of the inconclusiveness of this discourse, of approximation, of "no more than probable" - albeit in the very high degree of probability - seems to correspond to the characteristics of the faith journey of countless seekers of the true today. How true such a proposition is in the regime of "insecurity of faith" today, to the point of becoming an exemplary moment precisely for the daily struggle of faith.

In what sense does our time demand a "new" Gospel? The "new" has an elementary need: to be understandable. The Shroud abandons/overcomes all symbolism with the total completeness of its message: it may be harsh, but I cannot say that I do not understand it. We felt that the Shroud was a liminal witness of faith, an indication of the ways of the journey of faith. It seems to me that this characteristic is particularly suitable for dialogue in today's condition.

The amiable audience will excuse me if what little I say about "new evangelization" in practice always takes up confidences of my own little experience. If you knew what a strange reaction the reference to the new evangelization arouses in me... A question suddenly arises to/about how much is new in me, for the evangelization that I continually owe first of all to myself along the passage of years: for me, today, is the Shroud still "gospel" and am I even now able to present it as "gospel" to those who approach me? The blight of habit, the experience of an at least apparent general decline in faith, the impression that the Shroud discourse and proposal are received as that taken for granted habit that fails at best to break through the crust of emotionality are all so many reasons that tempt to discouragement. But then I realize - immediately - that this sentiment affects all faces of evangelization. It is more the positive that I must look at than the decline of controllable adherence to the faith.

The positive in the Shroud is its exceptionality, I think I can say uniqueness. The Shroud has a uniqueness of its own that speaks and it seems to me that it is not conditioned to a - let me say - clerical mediation. If you will allow me a small confidence: I feel a particularly great joy when I am in the midst of lay friends, who are in everything more than I am, beginning certainly with technical issues, with discussions on the most varied scientific problems, but also in the discussion and planning of pastoral initiatives: interventions of a scientific nature (I feel more and more like a little chick) and initiatives with a pastoral implication (in the world of culture, of young people, of the tribulated, and so on). Of course, traditional signs also retain their significance, but the relationship to today is a constant reminder and source of heartfelt research.


5. Shroud and the New Evangelization


A journalist once asked Cardinal Ratzinger, "Can we represent Jesus Christ as he appears on the Shroud of Turin?" The Cardinal replied, "The Shroud of Turin is a mystery, an image that has not yet found an unambiguous explanation, although much speaks in favor of its authenticity. In any case, it moves us - with the singular strength of this figure, with the enormous wounds." "And with his impressive face," the reporter continued. And Ratzinger: "We can recognize in this face in a shocking way the passion. Moreover, we see in it a great inner serenity. In this face rest serenity and relaxation, peace and goodness. In this sense it really helps us to represent Christ." "A man with great self-awareness," the reporter continued. "If it were only human self-awareness, it would be exaggerated. There is something else in this expression, something much greater: Jesus knows that he is totally one with another, that is, with the Father, with God. This unity is familiar, surpassing all other modes of mystical unions that we know. Jesus can therefore apply to himself with good reason the name God I am."

Within the limits of an interview, we find in these lines an interesting example of how a theologian of great sensitivity - (who within a few years would become our Pope) - confronts the mystery of the Shroud: he knows the data of the scientific discussion and does not discuss them, while valuing their evidentiary elements; instead, he allows himself to be taken in by the message of the image and highlights all its potentialities. In the end, on the basis of the serenity emanating from the Shroud face, he comes to identify such a unique dimension in the attitude of the face itself that he goes on to speak directly about the feelings of Jesus, who experiences the awareness of his unique union with the Father. It is the starting point of a discourse that in the great interview is thematized on the Jesus of the gospels and of faith. But it is interesting that the Shroud could offer the spontaneous starting point.

It seems to me that this testimony is illuminating and exemplary. Starting from an undoubted knowledge of the results of the scientific discussion on the Shroud, one does not stop at them but proceeds to an observation that is only apparently superficial, but in reality pushes reflection on the more challenging theological datum and comes to speak spontaneously and clearly about Jesus. The Shroud has thus achieved its goal, with the reference to the One who is its whole raison d'être.

It seems to me that we can speak of a new evangelization starting from the acknowledgement of the "new" situation in which we find ourselves. Since in the progress of time situations continually renew themselves, evangelization must continually address the problem of newness. While this is a given, it is nevertheless true that there are times of more intense newness; today we seem to be grappling with such newness in regard to the gospel. Among the novelties that can propose a response of some effectiveness the expansion of knowledge of the Shroud plays - it seems to me - a function not without incisiveness. I say this with trembling, because there are many (probably too many) who are convinced that they have proposals of sure effectiveness. And among many there is no shortage of cases of inadequate proposals, which may even be harmful. The discourse on the Shroud today must take its stand in this at least problematic landscape.

I end with a final mention of the condition of my person. My amiable audience, seeing before them a priest, may probably wonder what place the Shroud has in the exercise of his ministry. I say this to... parry the blow! And this is the first time I have enunciated, even for myself, this question. I must answer that explicitly I do it too little. It is true that the Shroud is for me a habitual and beloved presence, like a family member, who does not need to be named to be operative. But perhaps I am taking a shortcut. The trouble is that when I stand there the first reaction is just silence. And then it is not easy to talk to others about silence.

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