Preaching at Evensong on Easter Sunday, Canon Andrew Willie drew on his study of the Turin Shroud, and referred to another painting by Nigel Robert Pugh.
Canon Willie said:
We have had a beautifully reflective Lent, partly inspired by Nigel Robert Pugh’s Stations of the Cross and by the sermons and services based upon them. For the entombment, Nigel produced a glorious picture combining the claustrophobic darkness of the tomb with God-given light from the outside. The shadowy mourners within, are both embracing the moment in the presence of the dead Lord of Life and also waiting to leave and put the stone across: the divine economy itself seems in a state of pause.
However, for portrayal of the tomb made empty by the resurrection, we have to look elsewhere. Nigel in fact did a charcoal drawing for the book, The Turin Shroud and the Mystery of Faith and this is exhibited here this evening. It is the only one of Nigel’s images placed neither in the realm of the Spirit nor in the Jerusalem of Jesus’s own day. Indeed, it seems to be located in the present but at the east end of a traditional Church building. An altar, roughly the dimensions of a resting place for Our Lord’s body, has a large white cloth dumped upon it. This is rather like the untidy setting aside of the grave clothes as depicted in St John’s Gospel, Chapter 20. The altar cloth is like a Shroud. What makes it a statement centred on the resurrection, only, is the fact that the Cross is nowhere to be seen. The drawing reminds us that without the Resurrection and the vacated Shroud, the altar where the live Christ’s presence is celebrated in bread and wine would never have existed. Indeed neither would the Church nor the Gospel. As far as the world is concerned, Jesus would just have been another “forgotten criminal”. Without the first Easter which the drawing celebrates, we would certainly not be celebrating Christmas, Pentecost, or any Christian Festival; neither would we be singing hymns, nor listening to readings in Church.
What do the lessons read this evening have to say to us? The first was from the Song of Solomon, the second from St John’s Gospel. The Song of Songs is one of two books originally attributed to Solomon. The other is the Wisdom of Solomon in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Some feel that the Song of Songs should not be in the Bible at all. They see it only as a highly romantic love poem. But in the Jewish-Christian tradition, there are several great mystic poets who express their love for God in highly sensual terms; I am thinking especially of two from the renaissance, the Spaniard, St. John of the Cross and John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s. Both came to love the Risen Christ with an ardour for God similar to that expressed in the Song of Solomon.
Mary Magdalene too had a deep love for Jesus as expressed in the second lesson. She went to his tomb, before dawn, saw that the stone had been removed and came completely to the wrong conclusion, that the authorities had removed the body. Her panic leads to Peter and Johns’ rushing to the tomb; to her failure to recognise Jesus when confronted by him and to her actually thinking him to be a gardener. This story shows how completely unexpected for her the resurrection of Jesus was.
Some commentators state that Jesus only appeared to his followers, and this leads them to speculate that in thinking about him, he became “alive” for them, without actually rising from the dead. Such an approach ignores the way Mary and so many other disciples were completely surprised by Our Lord’s resurrection; it ignores the conversion of St Paul, persecutor of the infant Church, [and certainly not a disciple of our Lord] through the appearance to him of the Risen Christ on the Damascus Road; and the fact that even in our own day, there are tales of people changed by His risen presence. Thus Anthony Bloom, very much a sceptical teenager in nineteen thirties Paris, was eventually ordained and became a valued writer on prayer and leader of the Russian Orthodox in Britain and Hugh Montefiore, a lad from one of our country’s most important Jewish families, finished up as a valued Bishop of Birmingham and respected New Testament scholar. I have heard a similar tale concerning a Priest in this Diocese. It came from the actual presence of the Risen Lord, sat next to him in the cinema, towards the end of a matinee showing of The Silent Witness. This was the first of the films about the Turin Shroud, a shroud which purports to be that in which Jesus’ body was buried. The Lord asked him to return to Church. This he did and eventually entered full-time ministry.
Belief in the authenticity of the Shroud’s claims was seriously undermined in 1988, when small off-cuts from a corner were sent for carbon-dating. Although the results dated it to between 1260 and 1390 and so made it a medieval forgery, this conclusion has been questioned for all sorts of reasons. These are to be found in books on the subject, my own included.* Here are four of them. Firstly special research protocols were disregarded, calling the work into question. Secondly, recent experiments have dated the shroud far earlier, with unsatisfactorily wide parameters, but with a mean roughly coinciding with the time when Jesus walked the earth. Thirdly, the Shroud exhibits both bloodstains and blood group which are the same as those on the Orviedo cloth, a facial cloth thought to be St John’s “napkin rolled up by itself.” This cloth has been continuously present in Spain since the seventh century. Fourthly, the Shroud shows evidence of Crucifixion, unknown to a medieval painter, but rediscovered in our own day. This especially concerns the nails, inordinately long and painfully penetrating not the palm of the hand as in medieval and renaissance art, but the base of the thumb and thence deep into the wrist; also, one very long nail for the feet, driven through ankles tied together. The bleeding from the nail-holes portrayed in Nigel’s Stations is exactly as it was and as on the Shroud. The Shroud certainly witnesses to the Cross and by the Grace of God to the Resurrection.
By God’s Grace? An alternative title for the Shroud is, “The image not made with hands.” Some in defiance of this title have worked hard in showing how it might have been created by Leonardo da Vinci, for example, despite the fact that an exposition of it took place a few years before he was born. More telling is an explanation from physics showing that the image could have been created by a burst of extremely strong ultra-violet light, though without destructive heat, a combination of which mankind is currently incapable. One reason why this cannot be dismissed is the ongoing experience of archaeologists at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This Church, claiming to house the slab on which our Lord’s body was placed, is undergoing complete restoration. Here, according to the Catholic Press in the small tomb chamber, a radiation problem has played havoc with some of the machinery employed, destroying some instruments and neutralising others. St Paul, who had seen Jesus on the way to Damascus, speaks of the dead who are in Christ as having a spiritual body, a fair description of the Jesus he had met and of the Jesus transfigured in the company of Peter, James and John.[Matt 17 1-8, Mk 9 2-8, Luke 928-36]. By the Grace of God.
The resurrection and the coming of God’s kingdom linked to it are not having the impact which they should in a society nowadays secularised and experiencing a moral confusion which infects the Church itself. T.S Eliot in 1939 lectured on the Idea of a Christian Society, one which did not exclude adherents of other religions. It was not a society of devout Christians only, but one in which the natural end of man, virtue and well-being in community, is acknowledged for all, and the supernatural end – beatitude – for those who have the eyes to see it. Eliot’s vision needs to become our own in our church, our country and in the world and the beatitude, the sense of blessing, needs to be with us as we walk with Jesus into Glory.
In St Paul’s Cathedral, London, there is a monument transferred from the ruined original building after the Great Fire of London. It is to Dr John Donne, Dean from 1623-31, poet and preacher. The monument, a good likeness, shows him wrapped in a Shroud, and a contemporary engraving of it has an accompanying inscription desiring Jesus be the Shroud of his Soul. At Easter, 1619, it seemed James I was dying – in fact, he lived another six years: but the situation merited a special sermon before the Lords, preached by Donne. He finished with the words I quote now: Precious in the sight of the Lord, is the death of his Saints, by which they are dead and buried, and risen again in Christ Jesus; precious is that death by which we apply that precious blood to ourselves, and grow strong enough to answer David’s question [in the psalms] What is man? With Christ’s answer, I am the man, in whom whosoever abides, shall never see death.
The Lord is Risen. He is risen indeed and has prepared for us a place in Life Everlasting. Alleluia, Amen.
* Canon Willie’s Book The Turin Shroud and the mystery of Faith can be purchased at the Tithe Barn