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From Thomas Cahill’s THE DESIRE OF THE EVERLASTING HILLS.

THE WORD MADE FLESH
God sent this son of his into the world not to judge the world but that through him he world might be saved. That is the Fourth Gospel’s explanation of the Father’s motivation. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” That is Jesus’s prayer to the Father, asking him to ignore our motivation.
The early Christians, the original friends of Jesus, so sympathized with Jesus’s pain and had been so traumatized by it that they could not bring themselves to depict the stark reality of his suffering, except in words—that is, in the accounts of the four gospels, which are as clipped and precise as the four authors knew how to make them. Only in the fifth century, nearly a century after the Roman state had discontinued the practice of crucifixion and no one living had witnessed such a procedure, did Christians forget the shame and horror of the
288 event sufficiently to begin to make pictures of it. By the time they began making such pictures, many of the gruesome details of actual crucifixion had been forgotten; and Jesus is depicted on the cross not as a man in agony but as the artist supposed he must have appeared at his resurrection. One detail, in particular, was completely forgotten. The gospels imply that Jesus was nailed to the cross through his hands and feet, fulfilling the description in Psalm 22 (“They pierced my hands and my feet”); and this serves well enough as a rough description. All artists from the fifth century on took this to mean that Jesus was nailed through the palms of his hands, and this is how we see him depicted down to the present day. But if a man were to be crucified through his palms, he would quickly slide off his cross, because the bones of the hands are insufficiently strong and stable to hold the weight of a body. Jesus was crucified through the bones of his wrists. We are now certain of this, because Israeli archeologists have dug up bodies from Jesus’s time that were crucified in this Roman manner.

It may be that all during the centuries that Christians could not bring themselves to portray the crucified Christ they had a picture of Jesus’s sufferings, a picture that they claimed was “not made by human hands.” There is, at least, an ancient tradition that such an image existed as a treasure of the Eastern church and that, after many adventures, it came to rest at Constantinople. There are some indications that this picture may be what we now call the Shroud of Turin, which in the fourteenth century was brought back from the crusades by a plundering French nobleman and finally found its way to the cathedral of Turin in Italy. Ancient creases in the cloth give evidence that the Shroud was at one time displayed face out with the unsightly corpus of the crucified folded out of view. A few years ago carbon-14 dating done on the Shroud yielded a medieval, not a first—century date. But since then other scientists have discovered that there is on the surface of the cloth a bioplastic coating—that is, a form of bacterium that reproduces itself and interferes with accurate carbon dating. Such a coating appears to cover many ancient objects made of fiber.

The Shroud is approximately fourteen feet long by three and a half feet wide and contains a faint, straw-colored image of a naked man, who would have stood about six feet tall. The corpse would first have been laid on its back on the lower half of the Shroud, which would then have been folded over the front of the body. The image on the Shroud is indeed of an entire body, back and front. There is no convincing evidence that the image was painted on the cloth. Rather, apart from the bloodstains, which were made by real human blood, the image appears to have been created by intense heat, but heat which did not scorch, a process no one can explain.

In 1898, Secondo Pia, a councilor of Turin, who owned a new invention called a camera, took photographs of the Shroud during a rare exhibition. As he developed his negatives, something quite unexpected happened. Whereas Pia had looked forward to capturing, at best, the ghost of a ghostly image, the human face and body that began to show themselves on his negatives were far more definite and recognizable than the image on the Shroud itself. One sees a muscular, barrel-chested, well-proportioned man, pierced in wrists, feet, and side, the eyes of his haunting Semitic face closed in death. The Shroud image, however it was made, is a genuine negative (except for the bloodstains), which makes Secondo Pia’s film “negative” a positive.

Though corpses laid to rest on cloth may leave smudged impressions which a forensic pathologist could discern, they cannot leave exactly proportioned images of themselves. We must look elsewhere for an explanation. But if we assume that the Shroud is a clever medieval forgery; we must assume that it was made by an artist whose grasp of the negative-positive properties of photography was five centuries in advance of his time and whose understanding of anatomy was far in advance of that of all his medieval contemporaries. Such a theory; however, falls apart after a careful look at Pia’s negative. Every artist, especially one as facile as the Shroud artist would have to have been, is identifiable by his style, which is as characteristic of him as his signature or thumbprint. The negative image has no style whatever; there is no hand in it. It seems obviously a photograph, that is, an image made by light.

A medieval forger would also need to have been the only human being between the time of the emperor Constantine and our own to have been completely conversant with the details of Roman crucifixion. Before his crucifixion, the man on the Shroud was stripped naked and scourged over his whole body, the scourge marks especially visible on chest and back. The scourging was performed by two men of unequal height, standing in front and in back of the prisoner, and was effected by whips, which the Romans called flagri, to the ends of which were affixed small metal dumbbells. He received a blow of great impact across his right cheek, which caused considerable swelling below the eye and some displacement of the nose. The puncture wounds all around his head suggest that he was made to wear a cap or helmet of sharp, spiky objects. He was also made to carry for some time something rough and heavy across his shoulders. He seems to have fallen, perhaps more than once, abrading knees and nose. The nails of crucifixion—actually spikes about a foot long—were driven through his wrists and feet. He died in agony, as do all victims hung in crucifixion, after hours of gradual suffocation and loss of blood. Soon after his death, his left side was pierced by an elliptical object, apparently aimed at his heart. From this wound, blood flowed copiously, collecting in pools at the small of the back and spreading across the cloth.

The hands, crossed over one another at the pubis, are almost too large for the body, reminding us that here is the body of someone accustomed to physical labor—”whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe’ in the words of a Celtic hymn. But it is the face in Secondo Pia’s negative that is the most arresting: humane, majestic, beyond conflict. Only a Rembrandt or an early icon artist could have come close to catching such an expression. This is the face of a dead man. Imagine, for a moment, what impact it would have if its eyes were to open.

Did those eyes open a moment later? Was this image impressed upon the cloth by the heat and light of new life? No laboratory will ever tell us, nor can any scientist give such questions a scientific answer. The questions are important, not because we can ever hope to answer them with human knowledge, but because they lead us to the ultimate question about Jesus: does his story make sense? For though we may admire his compassionate and uncompromising moral teaching, his healing care and prayerful life, his human story (like all others’) ends in suffering and death, a death as overwhelming and incomprehensible as any of us shall ever undergo. What is there here to nourish us?

“The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world,” said the Johannine Jesus. We do not have to adopt a theology of substitution—the theory that God required a spotless human victim to make up for human sin—to make sense of the crucifixion. Such a theory, it seems to me, is a remnant of prehistoric paganism and its beliefs in cruel divinities who demanded blood sacrifice. But Jesus’s suffering body is surely his ultimate gift, for it is his final act of sympathy with us. From all ages, human suffering has been the stumbling block that no life can avoid and that no philosophy has been able to comprehend. In the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job, God refuses to explain why good people must suffer. In the New Testament, he still does not explain, but he gives us a new story that contains the first glimmer of encouragement, the only hint of an explanation, that heaven has ever deigned to offer earth: “I will suffer with you.”

The flesh of Jesus is the bread of the poor, the sick, the miserable, the dispossessed—their nourishment. “For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow into our lives, so does the encouragement we receive through Christ,” Paul tells the Corinthians. Whatever pain we suffer, he has suffered. However acute our suffering, he too has borne the whips, the thorns, the nails, the lance, the cross. “It makes me happy to be suffering for you now, and in my body to complete all the hardships that still must be undergone by Christ for the sake of his Body, the Church,” Paul tells the Colossians. Because Jesus meant to sympathize with the pain of every man and woman, his sufferings continue in us and ours in him. “To sympathize” means literally “to suffer with.” “Though he possessed divine estate,” goes a primitive Christian hymn, quoted by Paul to the Philippians,

he was not jealous to retain
equality with God.

He cast off his inheritance,
he took the nature of a slave,
and walked as man among men.

He emptied himself to the last
and was obedient to death,
to death upon a cross.

While huddled with others in a London air-raid shelter in 1940, Edith Sitwell listened through the night to the sounds from the sky, both bombs and rain:

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
                                                        Upon the Cross.
Still falls the Rain—
Still falls the Blood from the Starved Man’s wounded
Side:
He bears in His Heart all wounds—those of the light
that died,
The last faint spark
In the self-murdered heart, the wounds of the sad
uncomprehending dark,
The wounds of the baited bear—
The blind and weeping bear whom the keepers beat
On his helpless flesh
. . the tears of the hunted hare.

Despite the bombs, the rain, the mercy of Christ, is falling through the universe:

Still falls the Rain—
Then—O Ile leap up to my God: who pulles me doune— See, see where Christ’s blood streames in the firmament:
It flows from the Brow we nailed upon the tree
Deep to the dying, to the thirsting/heart
That holds the fires of the world—dark-smirched with pain
As Caesar’s laurel crown.
Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man
Was once a child who among beasts has lain—
“Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood,for
thee.”

 

I have come to believe,” said Martin Luther King not long before he died in a pool of his own blood, “that unmerited suffering is redemptive.”

Yes, it is.–Reg Hartt 2019–06–1

 

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