The Shroud of Turin and the power of Christ’s resurrection in your life

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Easter Sunday: April 24, 2011
Acts 10:34, 37-43; Ps 118; 1 Cor 5:6-8; John 20:1-9

Happy Easter, everyone! Christ is risen! He is truly risen! Alleluia!

As we heard in our Gospel reading, St. Mary Magdalene arrived at his tomb that first Easter Sunday morning to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. For Christ was not there: he had been raised!

But I wonder: What happened inside that tomb? Christ was raised from the dead; but what would a camera inside the tomb have recorded? What would scientific instruments have detected?

For the Scriptures don’t tell us. The Gospels recount how Jesus’ dead body was wrapped in a linen cloth, and placed inside the tomb, and a stone was rolled in front of it, on Good Friday. And then, on Easter Sunday morning, the women found the stone rolled away, and angels, and the empty burial cloths, but no Jesus; until he appeared to them, very much alive. But, in between those two points, while the stone was in front of the tomb: what happened?

It is a question we should take seriously:

  • Given the urgency with which St. Peter declared that he and the other apostles were witnesses to the risen Christ—and that they had been chosen and sent by God to bring this message of judgment and forgiveness.
  • Given that the resurrection is not just a matter of a fallen leader’s message living on in the memories of his followers; nor of Christ going only spiritually to the Father. For, as Scripture scholar N.T. Wright has explained, nothing short of real bodily rising could have counted as “resurrection” to the Jews or Greeks of the 1st century.
  • Given that Christ’s resurrection is so much more than what happened to Lazarus. For, as we heard 2 weeks ago, when Christ raised Lazarus, someone else had to roll back the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, and someone else had to help take his burial cloths off of him. And Christ only raised him back to this same earthly life: eventually, he would die again. But when Jesus rose, it was quite different. His body was transformed. The risen Jesus could pass through locked doors and move long distances in a moment. He would never suffer or die again.

So what did happen inside that tomb? Can we know? There was not a single human being inside that tomb to witness the moment of the resurrection.

But there were some things: the burial cloths that went in wrapped around Jesus and were left behind when he departed. They were present, even in contact with him, at the moment of his resurrection. If we had them, would they contain some clues to what happened?

You surely have heard of the Shroud of Turin: a long linen cloth that has been in France and then the city of Turin in northern Italy for the past 600 years. It is 3½ feet wide and 14 feet long—about twice as long as this cloth. It shows the image of the full body of a man, front and back; and this is said to be the image of Christ crucified and burial, for the cloth is said to be his actual burial shroud. Now, the Church has not pronounced either for or against this shroud; scholars debate back and forth; and I am not taking a stand either. But I want to consider some characteristics of the Shroud of Turin, because of some very interesting possibilities they raise for what occurred in the moment of Christ’s resurrection.

The image itself is entirely superficial. It does not penetrate the linen of the cloth; and there is no pigmentation, such as would be found in paint. Rather, the image only exists within a coating upon the cloth—so thin, it is said, that, if you lightly scraped a razor blade over the surface of it, you would remove the image. And what is that image? It is very like a photographic negative; but not a 2-dimensional negative, but rather a 3-dimensional negative.

And so scholars ask: how was this image made? Can we come up with a technique to replicate the Shroud, with its mysterious image? Paint is out; and so is putting a cloth on a hot metal statue, or something like that. From my reading, a few ideas stand out:

  • Could it have come from chemical substances coming out of the body and causing a chemical reaction in the coating on the cloth?
  • Or, could it be the result of a corona discharge—an electrical discharge that looks sort of like lightning or a lightning glow coming out of an object?
  • Or, what is most interesting to me: could it be the result of some sort of radiation—xrays, or ultraviolet, or another radiation—coming from some great energy source within the body?

And that leads to an interesting possibility. Could it have been that, in the moment that Christ was raised from the dead: something like a controlled nuclear reaction was occurring within his body; not only restoring it to life, but transforming it, changing it, moving it to what we might call a whole new dimension; so that this radiation was being released into the cloth in a short but intense moment, the same moment that the cloth was collapsing upon itself because the body was dematerializing out of this dimension?

Is that what happened, inside the tomb, that first Easter morning? Is that what was involved in overcoming the sting of death?

I want to raise a completely different analogy here: the game of “rock paper scissors.” Now, we all know how that game works, right? Let’s say that death is represented by the scissors, because of its sharpness and sting. And we know that scissors cut paper. And the problem is that death seems to cut down everything. Everything we reach for turns out to be paper: Riches and prosperity get cut down by death. And so do power and fame. And sex and beauty. Even family and friends; and achievements; and memory.

It all turns out to be paper! What we need is a rock to break the scissors. But where will we find it? Where is that rock, that cornerstone, that we desperately need? Is it the Easter bunny? No, I’m afraid not! Jesus Christ, the stone which the builders rejected, has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes.

“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” [1 Cor 15:55] Wouldn’t you like that in your life? A power like a nuclear reaction, such as the Shroud of Turin suggests; yet not destructive, but life-giving; freeing, nourishing, transforming? Wouldn’t you like the power of the risen Christ in your life?

It would seem that, in the moment of the Resurrection, Christ’s rising body passed through the Shroud—and made a lasting imprint upon it, an image of himself. And do you know that something very like that occurs in baptism? One of the actions that Christ accomplishes in the sacrament of baptism is an imprint upon the soul: something that we call a sacramental character, which cannot ever be removed. Baptism configures us to Christ: it makes us resemble him; it makes us somewhat like the Shroud. And that imprint, that character, serves as a source of grace within us to live out our baptism.

How radical is this? Some of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time believed in the resurrection, while some did not; and there was quite a lot of controversy about it. But what they all agreed was that, if the resurrection happened, it would be “the end of the world as we know it.” It would be essentially a whole new universe, with entirely different physical laws; no more pain, no more death. What they never expected was that the age of the resurrection would begin in one man, and would overlap our current age: so that the fruits of the resurrection are applied now to our souls and later to our bodies, when we will rise like Christ.

But have I forgotten something? How many of you were thinking, with my “rock paper scissors” analogy, that I was overlooking something? For rock is covered in paper, and Jesus is the rock, and these different sins or misplaced priorities are the paper—then am I saying that Jesus is defeated by them? Not absolutely, no. But, whereas “death waits for no man,” but just barges in and takes, our Lord Jesus stands at the door and knocks. And he says: If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me. Our Lord Jesus is a gentlemen: he will not force himself upon you; but he will invite and wait for your response.

And so, even though you have an indelible sacramental character imprinted upon your soul like the Shroud, it is possible to block it out and cover it over with paper. When you commit a mortal sin and do not bring it confession; when you block out the voice of conscience and deaden it; when you let stealing and greed take over; or lying and deceit; gossip; pride; sloth; gluttony; envy; wrath and hurting others; family neglect, and lack of love; lust; or sexual sin, including pornography, contraception, and any sexual activity outside of marriage; missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation; receiving Communion while you have unconfessed mortal sins; Failing to pray, but prioritizing work or pleasure ahead of this; Giving in the temptation; Giving in to fear. All of this kills the share in his own divine life that Christ gives us in baptism; it blocks out that image; it blocks out a certain sharing in the power of the resurrection.

Therefore St. Paul urges you this day: Clear out the old yeast, so that you may become a fresh batch of dough, inasmuch as you are unleavened. You can go to confession right after Mass, to receive Christ’s forgiveness and allow him to peel away every burden and sin that clings to you. [Heb 12:1] You can resolve to change your priorities in daily living, to turn away from false substitutes and toward Christ our Lord.

As St. Peter preached elsewhere in Acts [4:11-12]: “Jesus Christ is ‘the stone rejected by… the builders, which has become the cornerstone.’ There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

Let this Easter Sunday be a turning point in your life. Clear out the old yeast, and turn to the one who overcame the sting of death, the risen One, Christ the Lord, the cornerstone.

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