17 April 2022

Easter Homily on the Burial Cloths of the Lord

 The Solemnity of the Resurrection of the Lord

Mass During Easter Day

Dear brothers and sisters,

             There are, regrettably, a growing number of people throughout the western world who doubt the reality of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus from the dead. There are even a growing number of people who doubt even that Christ Jesus ever lived in our human flesh. Perhaps you know one of these persons; perhaps you are one of them yourself.

             In his homily for Good Friday in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, the Preacher to the Papal Household, Raniero Cardinal Cantalamessa – whose name literally means, “sing the Mass” – spoke to our “brother and sister atheists, agnostics, or those still searching for the truth (if any are listening).”[1] In his preaching, he quoted a letter of J.R.R. Tolkien, who said:


It takes a fantastic will to unbelief to suppose that Jesus never really ‘happened,’ and more to suppose that he did not say the things recorded all of him — so incapable of being ‘invented’ by anyone in the world at that time: such as ‘before Abraham came to be I am’ (John 8:58). ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father’ (John 14:9).[2]

 Why does the author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings say it takes “a fantastic will to unbelief” to doubt the reality of life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Leaving aside the various historical, philosophical, and theological arguments, we have another sort of argument, a tangible one.

             At Easter, we often speak of the “empty tomb,” but, in point of fact, the tomb was not empty on that first of the day week after the Crucifixion of the Messiah. We heard a moment ago the account of the tomb provided for us by the Evangelist Saint John.

            “So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb,” he says. He continues, saying, “They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and arrived at the tomb first; he bend down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in” (John 20:3-5). “The tomb was empty, then, inasmuch as nobody was there. It was not completely empty, however;” it contained the various cloths with which Jesus had been entombed.[3] The presence of the burial cloths inside the tomb is also attested to by Saint Luke (cf. Luke 24:12).

             He goes on to say something remarkable, something that is very often overlooked: “When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place” (John 20:6-7). We have, then, here mention of at least three cloths within the tomb: at least two on his body and a third that covered his face.

             But then Saint John says something even more striking: “Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed” (John 20:8). What did he see that caused him to believe? The tomb without the body of Jesus? Certainly not. No, he saw the burial cloths and believed. Why? What was so special about these cloths. You may be surprised to learn that the burial cloths of the Lord Jesus have not been lost to history; we are still in possession of four cloths that were found in the tomb of Christ.

             First, there is a long, thin strip of cloth that was wrapped around Jesus’ chin up to the top of his head to keep his mouth closed in death.

             Second, there is a bloodstained cloth measuring 33 inches by 21 inches called the Sudarium of Oviedo, because it is housed in Oviedo, Spain where it has been since at least the year a.d. 840. It was placed upon the face of Jesus at the moment he died to catch what is called the death blood that came out of his nose and mouth.

             Third, there is a long, rectangular cloth measuring 14 feet by three and a half feet that bears the image of a man who was five feet and eleven inches tall. The man depicted on this cloth was crucified, an image best seen in photographic negatives. Although this Shroud of Turin – so named because it is now kept in the Italian city of Turin - is the most studied cloth in the world, the image found on it cannot be explained.

             Whether considered individually or together, these three cloths cannot be what Saint Peter saw that caused him to believe in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The first two cloths show nothing but blood and the shroud could not have been unrolled inside the tomb; even if it could have been, it would have been too dark inside to see the image. What, then, did he see? There is a fourth cloth, a hand cloth that had been placed over Jesus’ face, the one found not with the burial cloths, but rolled up in a separate place, because it was quite different the rest.

             This fourth cloth is called the Volto Santo – the Holy Face – and the Veil of Manoppello, because it is housed in the Italian village of Manoppello, where it has been since the sixteenth century. It was kept in Rome from 708 - where it was called the Veronica, the true image - until the sack of Rome by the German emperor until 1527. The cloth itself measures 17.5 centimeters by 24 centimeters and is the largest piece of byssus surviving from the ancient world. As if on the cloth, we see


…the face of Christ on a transparent veil in delicate byssus colors, framed by shoulder-length hair parted in the middle and a sparse beard. The left cheek is slightly swollen, the mouth slightly open, and the eyes are open in an expression that is not included in the vocabulary of arrest warrants: perfectly merciful.[4]

 It is the most priceless treasure in the world, the very image of the Face of God, and served as the basis on which artists depicted the Savior for almost fifteen hundred years, but that is a story for another day.

             Byssus, the material of which this veil, this napkin, this sweat cloth is made, is woven from the silk with which a particular mollusk attaches itself to rocks. Byssus cannot be dyed and it cannot be painted; its color only comes from the color of the silks taken from the mollusk. In the ancient world, it was a precious material, never sold but only given as a gift. Pharaohs were buried with a piece of it over their faces and wealthy women wore it as a veil because they could see out, but others could not see their faces through the cloth. Away from the light, byssus appears brown, dark, and opaque, but when held in the light byssus shimmers in golden hues and is transparent, so much so that you can read a newspapers through it. Byssus is photoactive; it responds to light, strange as this might seem. Today, there is only one woman in the world who knows how to weave byssus, Chiara Vigo, who lives on the island of Sardinia.

             What happened that first Easter morning when Saint Peter entered the tomb of Christ? The cloth placed on Jesus’ face was on the ground, but


…it was not lying there flat. It was a haze, but it must have been recognizable as a “thing,” as an “object” that caught the first rays of dawn. Naturally, Peter bent down and picked it up. It was the precious little cloth that had lain on Jesus’ face, the finest sea silk. It was a light as a feather as Peter picked it up, unfolded it and held it against the light of the entrance. What else? He must have held that way, not toward the interior of the dark chamber, but up to the light. It was, however, a cloth of light. It reacts to light.


What Peter saw now in the tomb on the veil against the morning light made it in a blink of the eye as clear as the sun: no one had taken the Lord from the tomb. Jesus had not been stolen and carried away. Something completely new was in the world now. It was unheard of it, what Peter glimpsed in the blue hours of the first Easter morning here, on that transparent fabric held against the light of the entrance. Here suddenly Christ looked back at him! With open eyes! No man had ever seen this before. This cloth was “not made by human hands,” as was said later. It was the true image. Three days earlier Peter has said that he did not know that man. Hours later he had had to watch from a distance and hear how Jesus, streaming with blood, cried out once again on the cross and died. Peter was still reeling from the shock – when now suddenly Christ himself looked out at him from the veil in his hand. Now he knew him. Now he recognized him immediately. “In thy light we see light,” Israel had read for centuries in the Book of Psalms [Ps 36:9]. Did that verse perhaps occur to him? Or did he already remember then the earlier intimations of Jesus that “the Son of man must … be killed, and on the third day be raised” [Lk 9:22]? We do not know. Only one thing do we know. Besides the bewildering emptiness of linens in the tomb, this message in pictures read: “I live.” Jesus was no longer dead. The only thing corresponding to this image was not another image, no icon or other sort of portrait; the only thing corresponding to what he saw there was the living man.[5]

 This cloth is what Peter saw that caused him to believe, but it was not only Peter who saw it.

             Mary, too, treasured this cloth with the image of the Face of her Son. We are told that


She had received it from the hands of God himself and kept it with her at all times, so that she might always be able to contemplate the wondrously fair face of her Son. Each time she wanted to adore her Son, she stretched the image out to the east and prayed before it with her gaze on her Son and with open, uplifted hands. Before the burden of her life was finally taken from her, the apostles carried Mary on a stretcher into a cave. In this cave, they laid Mary down to die before the face of her Son.[6]

 We see in this cloth that Jesus “does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible. Love, after all, can never be just an abstraction.”[7] Those who look upon this Face cannot but believe.

             When examined forensically, the face on the Shroud of Turin and the face on the Veil of Manoppello belong to the same man, and the blood stains on the Veil of Oviedo belong to this same man.

             This Easter, dear friends, look upon the Face of Christ, the proof of his Resurrection from the dead. Look upon the Face of Mercy and believe! Amen. Alleluia!

[1] Raniero Cardinal Cantalamessa, Homily for Good Friday, 15 April 2022. Accessed 16 April 2022. Available at https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/250993/full-text-cardinal-cantalamessa-s-homily-at-the-vatican-s-good-friday-2022-liturgy.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter __________. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed. (), .

[3] Paul Badde, The True Icon: From the Shroud of Turin to the Veil of Manoppello. Trans. Michal J. Miller. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 33.

[4] Paul Badde, ibid., 65.

[5] Ibid., 92-93.

[6] In ibid., 49.

[7] Pope Francis, Vultus misericordiae, 9.

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