Shroud Tour: The Icon of Jesus Christ
The Shroud is perhaps the best icon of the great hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, “Though He was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God, something to be grasped. Rather, He emptied Himself and took the form of a slave being born in the likeness of man. It was thus that He humbled Himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross. Because of this, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed upon Him the name which is above every other name. That, at the name of Jesus, every knee must bend, in heaven, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father, Jesus Christ is Lord!”
In the Eastern Church, an icon is an image painted through prayer. It is labored over for days, even years. The iconographers would constantly be praying to God for the inspiration in their painting. They would ask the intercession of the saint who they were painting to guide them. When they were finished with the icon, it would be used by those who would pray before it as a window to the thing it represented. The Eastern Church experiences the presence of the heavenly bodies through the icons which, in many ways, are the portal to them and which bear an iconic likeness to them. Icons were also instrumental in passing on theology or “faith instruction” to those who would gaze at them in prayer. Icons were meant to teach the faith just as much as they were meant to lead one into prayer. The Shroud is an icon, a “window to the supernatural”. It takes us beyond the restraints of space and time and sets us before the supernatural presence of Jesus Christ. It is the first icon, since it was created by the hand of God to lead others to God. It is the supreme icon, as it was created by God showing the exact likeness of Christ, not created by man to bear a prayerful likeness of a saint or of Christ. By using it as a tool of prayer, we are brought before the Lamb who was slain for our sins, and we can see this Lamb of God, who emptied Himself out completely, taking the form of a slave, bearing our human likeness, though He was God. We see the Lamb who, through obedience to the will of the Father, accepted death on the cross—His obedience to this death and His accepting of this death is attested to by the peaceful face of the mutilated and tortured body that we see in the Shroud. The Shroud is also a tool of teaching, for in as much as it draws us into reflection of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, it also teaches us how great His love was, what the process of Crucifixion was really like, and the fact that He truly did rise from the dead three days later. It teaches us that the supernatural has a place within the natural world and that these supernatural signs, or miracles, aren’t really an interruption of the order of this world, but rather, they work to restore this world, even if by a glimpse, to the word that was before original sin.1 The Shroud is the perfect and God-given icon of the Philippians hymn. It is almost as if St. Paul was looking at the Shroud as he wrote those words.2 It is worth taking the time to look at a few lines in the Philippians hymn, and see how the Shroud correlates with an almost precision to its words.
The Body image of Jesus that is seen on the Shroud is truly a work of God (evidenced throughout this website). Jesus’ body image is revealed to us through the supernatural hand showing His own relation to God. All evidence seems to indicate that it was created by God at the moment of the Resurrection while it was wrapped around the body of Jesus Christ.3 Because of this, we can draw the conclusion that His divine character, being in the form of God, had an effect on the burial shroud. It is Jesus’ Divine power that goes through him and out to the woman via His clothes in Mark 5:27. It is His Divine power (through the Spirit) that also effects the burial shroud.
In order to understand the type of slavery (which will allow us to understand the iconographic imagery to the Shroud) that St. Paul mentions in this hymn, we must first rid ourselves of the ideas and thoughts of what slavery is from the cruel memories of the African slavery in America, the enslavement of the Jews and others in the Nazi concentration camps, and the slavery that the Egyptians forced upon the Hebrews in the book of Exodus. Instead, we must put in our minds a form of slavery that God gives the Jewish people in the Book of Deuteronomy. Before we go into this, we must remember that at this time in human history, every culture was practicing slavery of one form or another. It was a given. God, in His directives for slavery gives it a new, radical, definition. With this in mind we turn to Deuteronomy Chapter 15: 12-17. It is helpful to quote it at length (I am quoting from the English Standard Version which is quite literal from the original Hebrew):
12 "If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you.
13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed.
14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the LORD your God has blessed you, you shall give to him.
15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today.
16 But if he says to you, 'I will not go out from you,' because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you,
17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.
Notice that the Jews are only allowed to have a slave for six years. On the seventh year they must let them go free. This is a reflection of Creation, six days to work, and on the seventh, God rested. But notice, too, that when a slave is set free, the master must provide for them, give them from the wealth in which that slave helped create. The master has a responsibility to make sure they can make it as a free person. All of this is meant to stir the Jewish memory that they were also once slaves. In turn, they must treat their slaves well. In fact, Deuteronomy reminds the Jewish people that they were slaves no less then eleven times.4 This is to remind them of how they were treated in the past so that they may not persecute others in the same way. Jewish slaves were treated well; they were often treated very well. We only have to look at verses 16 and 17 for proof of this:
But if he says to you [after the sixth year], 'I will not go out from you,' because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same.
If they were treated so well that the slave didn’t want to be free, but instead, wanted to live with their master forever, then they entered into a covenant, sealed with the shedding of blood (putting their ear to a door and nailing an awl, or a wooden stave, through their ear into the door). This covenant that they have now participated in with the master and his household would make the slave a part of their family and he would be bound to them forever. This covenant is freely entered into and it is done so out of a love that prompts the slave to want to be with his master forever. It is this form of slavery,5 and this covenant of the slave that we see embodied on the Shroud of Turin.
The very blood of Christ that litters the linen is a testimony to the enslavement of Christ in taking upon our humanity. It was an enslavement that He sealed, not by nailing His ear to a door, but by nailing His body to a cross. This was the expression of the newfound covenant in His blood, a covenant made in the freedom of God (He didn’t have to, but he choose to) that says He loves us and wants to be with us forever (the gift of freedom allows us to choose to accept this gift and love of God, and allows us to decide if we want to remain in Him and with Him). When we meditate upon the Shroud we can see this theme of Jesus the slave, freely given to humanity out of love, stare us in the face.
Again, we are brought back to the image of His Body, for not only His Divine nature is shown to us, but it is glorified, resurrected nature. It is because he underwent the cross out of love, being completely innocent, being the true Lamb of God: fully human, and fully divine, that He was raised up as He predicted and so defeats death. Only Jesus could have done this. His glorified body is now in heaven, yet He left an image of it for us so that we can be drawn into the power of His glory, and the power of His name. It is this "lifted up" image that we see in the Shroud, as the Image of the Resurrection, the man suspended in mid-air (see the section of the shroud tour: "Image of the Resurrection"). However, all of this, Christ’s work, His mission, His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, and the gift of the Shroud are all things to draw us to give glory to the Father. For the Father sent the Son to give the Spirit,6 and the Son reveals the Father and leads all to the Father through the Spirit.
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1. This is a point that has been made clear to me through the instruction of Joseph Murphy, SJ, throughout his courses on sacraments and the Triune God. Back to text
2. It is believed by most biblical scholars that the Philippians hymn was a hymn common in the Christian Church and was not penned by St. Paul, but rather, a pre-Pauline hymn which he included it in his letter knowing that the community he wrote to would know the hymn and have a special connection to it. To learn more about this hymn and Paul’s use of it, I would like to recommend chapter eight of Stanley Marrow’s book Paul: His Letters and His Theology, published by Paulist Press. Back to text
3. This statement is not an attempt to claim that natural vapors, sweat, etc. from His body created the image, but rather that it was by the closeness of the cloth to the Divine that this supernatural work was created. This is different than another miraculous image crafted by the hand of God, the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Notice that the tilma wasn’t actually touching the lady, therefore it was not as if imprint of a divine being that was within her wasn’t stamped onto the cloth (after all, she is a human being, not God), but rather, God chose to imprint her image upon the tilma as a sign of her holiness and faithfulness to God. And so, to cooperate with God’s plan of the conversion of the Aztec lands, God through His power, gave a sign asked for of Mary to Juan Diego in order to prove to the Bishop the validity of her words and mission. Back to text
4. See Deuteronomy 5:6; 5:15; 6:12; 6:21; 7:8; 8:14; 13:5; 13;10; 15:15; 16:12; and 24:22. Back to text
5. For a great and in-depth look at this theme, please get a copy of Tim Staples’ exciting cd set on “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians” available through St. Joseph Communications ©2004. Back to text
6. Another theme that I picked up from courses by Joseph Murphy, SJ. Back to text
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