Many people still look at me as if I were telling them, without embarrassment, that the Cathedral in Cologne has three towers, when I recount for them for the first time the story of the sudarium of Christ of Manoppello. “Is it possible” I always read in their eyes “that throughout our whole life we have overlooked something?” Yes, it is, I have to always say. But they should not feel alone, because all of us often neglect the most important thing in the most important passages.
Or, which of us has not heard at least once from our pastor, or our bishop, the phrase “He saw and believed” during the Easter homily? This phrase is a critical passage in the Gospel of John which we have heard since childhood. Yet, in Christian exegesis it becomes almost invisible, as if it weren’t there at all. Like a “third tower” in the Cologne cathedral. This is understandable. After all, what does this phrase mean? The empty tomb, by itself, is not the thing that would bring about believing. A half an hour before, in the same place, Mary Magdalene – according to John – had only seen that “the Lord has been taken away”. Nothing was there for believing.
It was therefore necessary for the linguistic genius of a Martin Luther to point out this contradiction. Recently Pastor Clausnitzer from Worms showed me a translation of the Bible dating from 1545, where Doctor Martinus supplemented this fundamental passage of the Gospel of John (20: 5-10) in this way: “After him came Simon Peter, who entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths on the ground and also the cloth that Jesus had on his head, not with the linen cloths, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in and he saw and believed (he had been taken away, as Magdalene had said). Yet they did not understand the scripture that he would have to rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes”
Being the genius of the language which he was, Luther had clearly seen here in the text that John had not said everything. Therefore he attempted to resolve the apparent contradiction as if it were a damaged parchment — that it was necessary to lightly “mend” this passage and also supplement it. After him, the only comparable cunning was that of Rudolf Bultmann, who, in order to resolve the many contradictions of the Gospels that he could not explain, concluded that here his Rabbi Jeshua was not raised from the dead, but only in the kerygma, i.e. in the preaching of the disciples, they only said that he had risen. In other words, the resurrection of the Son of God made man was in truth a resurrection in Christian preaching. Also in Christian chattering. Please do not laugh! It was not just a crazy idea. The fact should not be overlooked that the same apostolic cowards, who before the death of Jesus had fled (including John), are the same ones who, suddenly, after his death all boldly began to speak of Jesus as the messiah. This should therefore be understood as resurrection – but certainly not an unrealistic resurrection from the dead of Christ who was slain. So if ever the “bones of Jesus” should be found in Jerusalem, the “believing” of Rudolf Bultmann would certainly not be shaken, as he was able to say.
Since that time, in any case, the “empty tomb” no longer has a home in the heart of Christian theology. It can be understood and interpreted seriously only as a kind of religious metaphor. So maybe the last members of the faithful in the church will still want to believe in the simple overcoming of death through Jesus Christ. The (last) eloquent pastors in front of them know better, because, after all it is in their preaching that God is (presumably) risen. But hello! This is the disturbing Kerygma: the greatest mythological theological creature of all time. It’s the unicorn from Tubingen and, of course, a bunch of garbage.
We don’t need to say more than that, in this way, the Christian faith has been eroded to the very core, because, in the wake of this new heretical dogma, most theologians have long been convinced that the reporting in the Gospels cannot generally be considered reliable. And of course this applies in particular to the most incredible miracle of the whole Bible: the resurrection of Jesus (with skin and hair and with wounds healed) from the world of the dead.
It should not surprise us that the exhibition of that mysterious fabric in Turin (which corresponds in every detail to the linen cloth in the Gospels which Joseph of Arimathea provided for the burial of Christ) raises in many theologians now a simple shrug of the shoulders. For the Shroud of Turin fits so perfectly, and in contrast to the Gospels – in an almost obscene way with an undoubtedly accurate issue date, into an event which according to the cream of theologians simply never happened. So that the tangible linen of Turin collides head-on with the new doctrine of a virtual resurrection of Jesus in the kerygma of Christian preaching.
We must therefore take note of the fact that the greatest opposition to the recognition of the authenticity of the shroud of Christ does not come from the outside but from within the Church. But this is nothing new. In the West it has always been so, since 1357 in Lirey, a small village in the Champagne region, when the widow of a Crusader exhibited for the first time the shroud. How and when it arrived from the East is a mystery, but since then its career in Europe has been documented at every step. Therefore we also know that it was exhibited again in Lirey in 1389, in a most solemn way, as if there were on display the very body itself of Christ our Lord: two priests dressed in albs, stoles and maniples, with the greatest reverence, with flaming torches on a dais set up especially for the occasion, reports Pierre de Arcis, bishop of Troyes, criticizing the episode.
The Bishop also recounts the evaluation of his predecessor who held that it was just a fake. “The issue in question is this, Holy Father,” he therefore wrote to the (anti) Pope Clement VII: “Some time ago, in the diocese of Troyes, the dean of the collegiate church of Lirey, falsely and fraudulently, driven by greed and not by piety and only for the profit of his own church, obtained a cloth painted with astuteness, on which is portrayed with skillful art an image front and back of a man and it is falsely claimed that this is the true sudarium in which was wrapped our Savior Jesus Christ in the tomb and on which there has remained the whole image of the Saviour with his wounds. Many theologians have said”, he continues, “that this could not be the real burial cloth, because nowhere in the Gospel can a reference to this image be found”. This was a shrewd argument. The furious Bishop had not even seen the cloth. The exhibition was organized by a certain Godefrey de Charny, who had asked the consent of the same pontiff, who generously granted it to the man of Lirey, on the condition that it not be called sudarium. This sudarium was, in fact, in Rome, where it was regularly exhibited for pilgrims.
This brings us to another problem which accompanies the history of the shroud in the West to this day: the question of identification. Since, because of the signs of the bloodstains, which refer to Jesus so unequivocally, as well as to his face in chiaroscuro, it was immediately and almost automatically identified with that soudarion that John mentions in the context of the discovery of the empty tomb. Despite the admonition of Clement VII, and despite the fact that in Rome, in 1206, a much smaller and delicate sudarium was publicly venerated, still the burial cloth of Lirey, later in Chambéry, was always called sudarium. In France it is still called suaire. In Spain it is el sudario. Even when, in 1578, it was transferred from France to Italy it continued to be presented as sudarium, and also in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until in Italy the name “Holy Shroud” (Santa Sindone) prevailed.
The dilemma of identification was finally solved, but only about forty years ago, when the Capuchin Father Domenico da Cese (1905-1978) recognized in the Abruzzo town of Manopello a mysterious fabric of Marine byssus fine linen as the true sudarium of Christ, which, in the first place, was identical to that long revered in Rome and, secondly, which is not opposed to the sudarium of Turin, but rather was complementary to it. There is no competition between these miraculous images. The veil is the substantive “missing link” with the Gospel of John, which in turn, after a more careful and critical observation, dissolves, as it were, into nothingness a number of contradictions in the extensive research devoted to the sudarium. For John explicitly mentions, and not without reason, two shrouds (“ta othonia … kai to soudarion”). And here they are: two fabrics with two inexplicable images. “Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses can a charge be sustained” it was already said in Deuteronomy (19.15), the oldest and greatest code of Israel. So Peter and John had run to the tomb. At least two witnesses were needed to verify the resurrection. So there remains up until this very day two documents of this meeting which speak to us of the event like no other text. One image of Holy Saturday and one of Easter morning. The primordial icon of the crucified and dead Christ and the primordial icon of the “living face of the Father’s mercy”, on which Pope Francis has now chosen to model the upcoming Holy Year. The inexplicable miraculous image on the delicate handkerchief is the trustworthy sign which Luther overlooked in the testimony of John: “He saw and believed.” It is the missing image, among all the words: that which John and Peter saw, already in the tomb.
Looking closely at this face, you can see a slight hint of the smile of God. For we are at the end of that process by which the more enlightened Western theology argues that the empty tomb of Christ in reality never existed; It is at this moment in time that the two ancient sudariums (which come from this tomb) are reunited suddenly in a unity that has no precedent in history and which now, together, start talking. In the future the passion and resurrection of Christ will not be recounted solely by the four Gospels, but also – in the midst of the revolution of the image which is now underway – by two mysterious forgery-proof picture ID’s which have reached us almost intact from the 9th of April of the year 30. No homily can repair a faith, long since weakened, in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. This also explains why the resistance to the sudarium Christi of Manopello is even greater than that towards the Shroud of Turin. Because it is, and still remains, easier to believe in death – even the death of Christ and of course the death of God! – rather than in the resurrection of the son of God from the dead.
But Christ is, and remains, risen. Resurrexit sicut dixit. Thank God and Hallelujah!
(This article first appeared in Die Tagespost on Saturday, May 30. Translation into English by Raymond Frost.)