Recently a member of our congregation went to visit the Shroud of Turin at its ‘ten year showing’. Everyone knows now that it is a production of mediaeval times, but still, lots of people have gone to see it. There are of course many views about the shroud. Those who want to support its religious significance will talk about the questions that are still unanswered, like ‘How was it done?’ and ‘How old is it really? Can we trust the carbon dating?’ So long as there are questions to be raised, the mystery of the shroud can be kept alive. Then of course others of a more pragmatic mindset say ‘Well, it’s just a piece of cloth, so what? Even if it is Jesus’ shroud. So what?’
Pope Francis says that the image on the shroud ‘speaks to the heart’. And of course this is one legitimate way to approach the image. It is like the Grünewald Isenheim Altarpiece, where a very disfigured Jesus on the Cross reflects the suffering of those looking at the image.’ It says to them ‘God shares in what is most shameful and painful for you, and can transform it.’ Both images say something to our condition.
But as well, images localise and focus the whole complex of messages that is contained within the one picture.
I remember Harvey Cox talking about the Human Potential Movement of the 1970s and 1980s. [I was a part of it]. A very popular place for people to go to do ‘group work’ wasEsalen in California. Harvey Cox says that ‘many people think that the human potential movement began at Esalen. Well, that is where the angels sing its praises, and that is where the wise men go to visit, so it must be!’ The truth is that the Human Potential Movement had a lot of places where it was ‘born’ but our need to focus, localise, and have somewhere to ‘visit’ makes Esalen the ‘birthplace’ of the movement.
For my money though, the most important thing I get from the Shroud of Turin is the absolute importance of the physicality of God. Let’s start with the opposite. Judaism and Islam want to maintain the absolute freedom and sovereignty of God. One way of expressing this is to prohibit images. At those times in Christian history when people thought that the Church itself was ‘putting God into their box’ a corresponding downplaying of images in the form of iconoclasm increased. This is fine if one is trying to establish the freedom of God, but it has a very big down side in that God’s freedom is opposed to the physicality of God. This then leads to the forms of Christianity that want to dispense with physicality and simply have ‘spirituality.’ Even the classical Anglican formulation of a sacrament as ‘an outward and physical sign of an inward and spiritual grace’ goes in this direction. Once a distinction can be made between outward and physical and inward and spiritual, why does one need the outward and physical if the important thing is the inward and spiritual?
But human beings are ‘selves’. In the incarnation God’s ‘whole-self-for-us’ in Jesus speaks to and inhabits our ‘selves’. This for me is the reason why the shroud is important. It is like a form of sacrament or Icon. Just as the orthodox believe that because of the incarnation, the physical can bear and bring Christ to us in the form of Icons, so the shroud and also other physical things like the relics of the saints bring to bear the presence of Christ as physical presence to us.
In Athens recently, people who entered the Church walked underneath the icon of Saints Peter and Paul as they entered the Church. What a lovely physical form of ‘participation’ in the communion of saints: to have them as an ‘arch’ through which we enter the Church. We need this because our ‘selves’ are flesh and blood, and are localised, focused entities. So ‘God-for-us’ becomes localised and focused. At first in Galilee, and then in the icons and other physical things that we make up. It is like a kind of reiteration of the incarnation. God comes to us in Christ. We get ‘Christ’ and make up images of ‘Christ-for-us’ which then go on to be ‘Christ-for-them.’ I want God in my body! Like John Donne I have to say
..Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
This is another way of talking on the reflection about my wanting to surrender and why sacraments are just as important as icons, the Shroud of Turin and Relics. In Church, my whole ‘self’ is engaged. There is the physicality of vesting, the physicality of processing, the physicality of singing, the physicality of actually being in Church, the physicality of being in proximity to other bodies and the physicality of the bread and wine and the physicality of kneeling or standing, and the physicality of touch. And there is ‘spirituality’ of preaching and hearing the Gospel, the spirituality of intercession [but also the being moved in my bowels] and the spirituality of knowing each person’s story as they come to the communion rail, and the possibility of being able to bless them in that moment of ‘communion.’ All of this is bound up in the one ‘gestalt’ of being in Church celebrating the Eucharist. It is Christmas [God with us] and Easter [God saves us] all on one day each week.
The age of the shroud of Turin and the image on it does not prove the resurrection, neither does an empty tomb. What proves the resurrection is the continual physical presence of Christ in the Church. This happens, as St. Paul tells us ‘according to the Spirit’, but it happens in our bodies. It happens as the sovereignly free God promises to localise himself ‘for-us’ and to be present ‘for-us’ that we might have union with God. That’s why I can rejoice in icons, rejoice in the shroud rejoice in relics and rejoice in the sacraments. Let Charles Wesley have the last word.
Unsearchable the love
That hath the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Or man or angels thought;
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.