The Shroud of Our Salvation

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John Locke complains:

I find every sect, as far as reason will help them, make use of it gladly: and where it fails them, they cry out, it is matter of faith, and above reason. And I do not see how they can argue, with any one, or ever convince a gainsayer who makes use of the same plea, without setting down strict boundaries between faith and reason; which ought to be the first point established in all questions, where faith has any thing to do. (ECHU, IV.18.2)

While Locke in his own reasonings about the relationship between faith and reason may be only a distant forerunner to full-fledged proposals to place religion within the bounds of mere reason, his protest against fideistic cries is perennial and pervasive.

Natural and supernatural faith is an ubiquitous reality in human life. Natural, human belief is necessary on a daily basis (no, the cook did not poison my brunch omelette). Supernatural belief—at least in the apophatic sense, where human reason gropes in the dark for truths above itself—has also always existed. Homer gives Achilles the revelation that there is life after death when he sees the soul of his friend Patroclus (Iliad, 23). Plato has Socrates—pondering the mysteries of the human soul—realize the inadequacy of his theories and note that we must “sail through the dangers of life as upon a raft, unless someone should make that journey safer and less risky upon a firmer vessel of some divine doctrine.” (Phaedo, 85d) In another place Socrates observes that a man who could make other men virtuous “would, as far as virtue is concerned, here also be the only true reality compared, as it were, with shadows.” (Meno, 100a) There are places and moments, then, that reason finds itself out of room to run. It reaches a door and can feel the fire eternally consuming the space beyond, but cannot see its light and cannot satisfy itself fully in wondering about its nature. Supernatural faith—in the positive sense—brings us the certainty that there does exist this eternal, all-consuming fire, and it knows along with this many other truths about that fire. Yet even as it grounds our hope that one day we can enter in and behold it, we still do not see its substance.

Yesterday was Good Friday: March 25, 2016. March 25 is usually the Feast of the Annunciation; this year it was of course preempted. The union of the liturgical dates that mark the traditional entry and exit of Our Lord in this world is rare. Their astronomical conjunction will not occur again until 2157 AD. As John Donne observes in his majestic Christological and Marian poem (reproduced below), marking this occurrence in his lifetime: “today / My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.” During the Good Friday homily that pointed out this fact, I had occasion to reflect on these little details in salvation history that exceed our capacity to verify and indeed, would not increase supernatural faith could we bring them within the ambit of empirical methods. Nonetheless, we know in a general way that this is not beyond the scope of providence, for God can use human history itself to signify supernatural truths (ST, Ia, q. 1, a. 10) and his will alone places and arranges the stars in their motions, since no natural necessity demands that a star be here or there (De Potentia, q. 3, a. 17, c.). Faith can see in the contingent lines of history and spacetime the penmanship of God.

It struck me during this homily that I could not recall a time in my life when I seriously doubted that harmony could be found between the truths of faith and the truths of reason. Perhaps it is a thankful lack of Cartesian method in my theology. Of course it is ultimately due to grace unmerited flowing from baptism. Schooling taught me the arguments that St. Thomas provides: showing that philosophical reasoning can deflate the objections of other philosophers or scientists against the faith by showing them to be invalid or unsound (De Trinitate, q. 2, a. 3). Yet all of a sudden I remembered the felt origin of this trusting expectancy that faith and science would never conflict: my father.

When I was growing up, Dad gave a talk to small groups or parishes on Christ’s passion from a physician’s perspective. However, we called it “the Shroud talk” since the Turin cloth featured so prominently throughout. I attended the talk so frequently that once, when Dad didn’t feel well enough to give it, but it was too late to cancel, I gave it in his stead.

The presentation operated simultaneously at the levels of Scripture, medicine, archaeology, and a smattering of other scientific disciplines. This showed me from a young age that the supernatural truths spoken to the ears of the believer by the relics belonging to our faith, even if not fully circumscriptable by, were yet harmonious with the strictly scientific disciplines. Its argument was not so much a defense of the veracity of the Shroud as a consilience of these disciplines under the light of faith. Our Lord’s bloody sweat in the garden of Gethsemane? Hematidrosis, a rare condition but observed in those awaiting execution. The blood and water coming from His side? Pericardial fluid that would have built up due to percussive injuries sustained during the Passion. The inexplicable image of the Shroud that contains three-dimensional topographical information? Explanations differ: perhaps a minor nuclear explosion, perhaps postmortem chemical processes, perhaps “a collapsing cloth into a radiating body”—and perhaps the closest physical signature of the Resurrection.

Indeed, were it per impossible to be the case that we knew to the satisfaction of all nuclear scientists performing carbon dating and experts in archaeology that the Shroud of Turin did belong to Jesus Christ the Nazarene, this would still not suffice to establish the claim that this same Nazarene, King of the Jews, is also God Incarnate. The scientist can probe the nailmarks in the hands and feet of the Man of the Shroud and touch the blood flowing from his side, but the blood tests reveal only its AB-type and not the presence of his Lord and God. Reason has reached the door. It cannot deny the existence of an eternal fire in the space beyond, yet neither can it enter in and behold the fire firsthand. Only faith can see through the natural veil that shrouds reason and understand the truth of the Shroud of our salvation. Only faith can hear “the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est” and leave reason to wonder, in humility, at rare astronomical coincidences and recalcitrant archaeological conundra:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. (St. Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, ch. 5)

John Donne, “Upon the Annunciation and Passion Falling upon One Day.” (h/t Mockingbird)

Tamely, frail body, abstain today; today
My soul eats twice, Christ hither and away.
She sees Him man, so like God made in this,
That of them both a circle emblem is,
Whose first and last concur; this doubtful day
Of feast or fast, Christ came and went away;
She sees Him nothing twice at once, who’s all;
She sees a Cedar plant itself and fall,
Her Maker put to making, and the head
Of life at once not yet alive yet dead;
She sees at once the virgin mother stay
Reclused at home, public at Golgotha;
Sad and rejoiced she’s seen at once, and seen
At almost fifty and at scarce fifteen;
At once a Son is promised her, and gone;
Gabriel gives Christ to her, He her to John;
Not fully a mother, she’s in orbity,
At once receiver and the legacy;
All this, and all between, this day hath shown,
The abridgement of Christ’s story, which makes one
(As in plain maps, the furthest west is east)
Of the Angels’ Ave and Consummatum est.
How well the Church, God’s court of faculties,
Deals in some times and seldom joining these!
As by the self-fixed Pole we never do
Direct our course, but the next star thereto,
Which shows where the other is and which we say
(Because it strays not far) doth never stray,
So God by His Church, nearest to Him, we know
And stand firm, if we by her motion go;
His Spirit, as His fiery pillar doth
Lead, and His Church, as cloud, to one end both.
This Church, by letting these days join, hath shown
Death and conception in mankind is one:
Or ‘twas in Him the same humility
That He would be a man and leave to be:
Or as creation He had made, as God,
With the last judgment but one period,
His imitating Spouse would join in one
Manhood’s extremes: He shall come, He is gone:
Or as though the least of His pains, deeds, or words,
Would busy a life, she all this day affords;
This treasure then, in gross, my soul uplay,
And in my life retail it every day.

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One thought on “The Shroud of Our Salvation

  1. I read the 1978 team’s book on the Shroud when I was fifteen. It convinced that Jesus was alive. I wasn’t happy about it, but I was convinced. I have since become happy about it, too.

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