Shrouded in mystery?
I was born a cynic and have always found it difficult to believe in certain things which others find perfectly reasonable. Ghosts-certainly as the continuing presence of the dead-leave me cold and I fear that I am not amongst those who are convinced that aliens have visited the earth. Numerous visits to the Holy Land, however inspiring and educational they are-and they are-served to help me question whether this or that place really was the actual site of the Resurrection or the nativity of Jesus: the tarot cards and seaside fortune tellers seem to be no more than harmless entertainment, and horoscopes and astrology are just plain silly. It’s unusual then that, as a young person, I took quite a deep interest in the Shroud of Turin. It all stemmed from an article in a magazine in the late 1960s about the Shroud which explained its mysteries and ended with a full colour recreation of Christ on the cross: a three-dimensional representation based on the two-dimensional image on the cloth-it is an image which was on my student room wall and which I still have to this day. In truth, the Shroud is fascinating: how did the image get there? Why is it in negative? Why did it harbour spores from plants only found in the Jerusalem district? Why are the marks of the nails through the wrists not the hands? These, and many more, ‘quirks’ create the mystery of the Shroud and have spawned many books, investigations and outpourings of faith. Despite recent studies which seemed to suggest the cloth is medieval and the fact that the only contemporary shroud that has been found is nothing like that behind the altar in Turin Cathedral, there are still those who cling to the belief that it is the authentic winding cloth of Christ.
And lo and behold, the scientists have come out in support: the conclusions of the recent Italian study suggest that the image of Jesus found its way on to the cloth via an intense burst of ultra-violet light. All attempts to re-create the Shroud using technology available in the middle ages have failed, for the ability to create this intense beam did not exist for many more centuries. So what’s going on?
I must be clear and explain that I still believe the Shroud to be a human creation, made well after the crucifixion of Christ, but I remain intrigued; for such artefacts undoubtedly feed faith. But how and why? I wonder if it is because objects like the Shroud of Turin, the holy blood of Bruges and the countless pieces of the true cross or spines from the crown of thorns feed the imagination? When we are faced with a relic, regardless of its authenticity, we are urged to reflect more deeply about what they represent, what events they recall and what deeper and eternal truths lie under the ‘accidents’ of the small, perishable remains. In short, such relics help us enter more deeply into the mystery of life and the events of faith-they stir our imaginations. And this is where we part company with the scientists, for they wish, quite rightly and properly, to define and explain a physical cause for all things- the ‘theory of everything’ which we hear Brian Cox and others talk about. The eye of faith, on the other hand, believes in the endless impenetrability of the mystery of existence. We can scientifically explain the biology of reproduction and the physicality of human regeneration, but the love which underpins human relationships is an undefinable, limitless and ongoing mystery which defies explanation and encompassing and is constantly offering new experience and fresh layers. Here is both the meeting point and the present dividing point between the language of science and the experience of faith: the one suggesting all is, eventually, explainable; the other that mystery is forever evolving.
So, if the Shroud was finally proved to be, or not to be, the authentic cloth in which Christ was laid in death after his crucifixion, then this one fact would serve to work against what such objects of faith are about…for it would cease to inspire our imagination about just how great and ungraspable creation is.
At this time of year, we enter once more into the stories about the birth of Jesus…wouldn’t it be a shame if it was ever proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that they were all literally true|? For our encounter with the limitless mystery of existence would be at an end.
I wish you a holy and wonder-full Christmas!