The Shroud of Turin:  Its Ecumenical Implications

The Rev. Albert R. Dreisbach
© 1997 All rights reserved
Reprinted by Permission

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 When I first began to lecture on the Shroud of Turin, I had very real reservations as to how  it would be received by the larger ecumenical community. What I have discovered in the intervening years is that the Shroud needs no such apologist.  It is now, as it was on that very first Easter morning, self- authenticating.  In presentations ranging from the Salvation Army to the Syrian Orthodox, from the Bible Belt to the Biretta Belt, Christians of all persuasions are beginning to acknowledge not only that the Shroud is Christianity's most precious artifact; but that it is also "the" most significant visual aid available to the religious educator for teaching about our lord's Passion. Death and Resurrection.

 There are many "testimonies" regarding the impact on the beholder at his or her first encounter with the Image(s) of the Man of the Shroud.  One example will  serve to make the point:

 It was in the late forties when I first saw a photograph of the vastly imposing image on the Shroud of Turin...From that moment, whatever the solution to the mystery of its origin, I   had a sufficient face, and a credibly assaulted body, that seemed as far as I could advance   toward the original. For me the face on the Shroud was the image that seemed no guess at all but the thing itself.

    At once it surpassed the variously moving guesses of artists in the Roman catacombs, the  Byzantine mosaicists, Mantegna, Leonardo, Rembrandt and Rubens...Carbon dating now concludes that the linen is medieval in origin, with the corollary that the image was somehow made by an artist. But no one has shown how a fourteenth-century artist produced an object so complex in historical accuracy and still so mysterious in its physical properties. Meanwhile the battered calm face on the Shroud goes on seeming a worthy cause of the cataract of music, art, architecture and mystic rapture that artists and saints of the past two millennia have poured in honor of Christ and directed toward him. And all the Christs I imagined thereafter began in the unanswerable eloquence of the Shroud [Italic added.] (Reynolds Pierce. 1990. Clear Pictures. New York: Ballantine, pp. 243-44).

 Returning to the ecumenical dimension of this sacred linen, it  became very evident to me on the night of August 16, 1983, when local judicatory leaders offered their corporate blessing to the TURIN SHROUD EXHIBIT  and participated in the Evening Office of the Holy Shroud.  The Greek Archbishop, the Roman Catholic Archbishop, the Episcopal Bishop and the Presiding Bishop of the AME Church gathered before the world's first full size, backlit transparency of the Shroud and joined clergy representing the Assemblies of God, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians in an amazing witness to ecumenical unity.  At the conclusion of the service, His Grace Bishop John of the Greek Orthodox Diocese of Atlanta, turned to me and said: "Thank you very much for picking our day."  I didn't fully understand the significance of his remark until he explained to me that August 16th is the Feast of the Holy Mandylion commemorating the occasion in 944 A.D. when the Shroud was first shown to the public in Byzantium following its arrival the previous day from Edessa in southeastern Turkey.  What made things all the more amazing was that those who had scheduled the dedication had no idea of the significance of the date. It just happened to be the one night that all the various clergy had free on their busy calendars.  Was it merely coincidence, or was it yet another sign of God's larger purpose for his Son's burial cloth?

 The following January, bishops, clergy and laity of the local Roman Catholic and Episcopal Dioceses returned to the TURIN SHROUD EXHIBIT to sign a mutual covenant of cooperation and unity.  The participants had agreed upon the EXHIBlT as an appropriate And neutral site for the covenant's signing rather than selecting either of their respective cathedrals.

 How God may choose to further ecumenical cooperation in the future must wait to be seen..  However, we at the ATLANTA INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR CONTINUING STUDY OF THE SHROUD 0F TURIN, INC. pray that the intent of that first dedicatory service may prove to be prophetic:

 Accept we pray, this Exhibition or the Turin Shroud, and grant that those who look upon it  may have their hearts open to things which can be seen only by the eyes of faith.  By  the   Holy Spirit, use it to preach the Gospel of Salvation with  power and grace to those who   have not heard it, turn the hearts of those who resist it, and bring home to your fold those   who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.1
 History may provide  a clue as to what the cloth's future ecumenical implications may be. After almost 2,000 of years of history since its discovery in the Empty Tomb, the Shroud has
been on the move both literally and figuratively. If Ian Wilson's thesis is accepted that the Image of Edessa-Mandylion-Shroud  of Turin are one and the same, then the Holy Linen truly has traveled from the Tomb to Turin.  In the process it has survived a flood at Edessa, the sack of  Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, and a near disastrous fire at Chambéry.

 As I began to reflect upon its journey through time I also began to discover the ecumenical dimension of its travels. Could it be that, in addition to its physical preservation through the ages, God also has intended it to be an ecumenical bridge and unifier?  Until the day when we can once again share One  Cup and One Loaf, what could serve as a better focus for ecumenical unity than this "photograph" of the Resurrection.  "To the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. l:l6) , the Shroud has moved from the East to the West.  It is merely by chance that in the process it has been "lifted up" so that "all" are being drawn to Him whose sacred image it bears?  Is it merely by chance that those first Jewish disciples who visited the Holy Sepulchre learned of the Resurrection from this sacred linen's very emptiness - an experience so powerful that it sent them forth into all the world to share the fullness of its Gospel message?  Was it by chance that an afflicted Parthian king was cured and converted by it?  Was it merely by chance that our Orthodox brothers and sisters were privileged to be its custodians for nearly 1200 years, meticulously recording in their iconography and numismatics the features of our Lord which it bears?  Could it be that God assigned them this very role in response to those first Greeks who approached St. Philip with the plea that "we would see Jesus" (Jn. l2:2l)?  Was it by chance that the Church of Rome was to be its next and faithful guardian?  And is it by chance that now in the twentieth century the worldwide Protestant community is currently coming to appreciate the Holy Shroud's true significance?  Even charismatic TV evangelists like those on CBN end the Trinity Broadcasting Network have devoted hour-long programs to "The Shroud of Mystery."

 History's very preservation of this Holy Cloth should alert the ecumenical community to a divine purpose which should not be ignored.  Though no branch of Christianity has ever required belief in the Shroud's authenticity as an article of faith, many denominations are now coming to perceive that it can do such in the way of adding both depth and detail to a faith already held.  One 6th Grader after a visit to the EXHIBIT noted:  "I never knew before that He hurt so such for us.  I am going to try to live better for Him."  A "lapsed" adult who had not darkened the doors of a church in over twenty-one years, confessed with tears in his eyes  "My visit to the Exhibit has changed my life.  I didn' t  do much with the first half, but I would like to give the second half back to God."  Lest one think that he was merely overcome with the emotion of the moment,  I can tell you that not only does he now serve on the governing board of his local congregation, but recently I had the privilege of writing a letter of recommendation for him to begin his formal seminary training.

 Daily  at the Exhibit we came in contact with many who would never attend services at a local parish, let alone even visit a church to see an exhibition devoted to an alleged "relic."  For many of them the "religion" of the twentieth century is symbolized by the scientist's white laboratory jacket - certainly not the black cassock of a priest.  However, quite frequently these devotees of technology discover a truth long ago known to their theological brothers and sisters.  They come to scoff, but they stay to pray.  This phenomenon is well described by an American Baptist minister who has astutely observed: "Maybe the greatest attribute of the Shroud is that it creates doubt in the doubter, and God doesn't need much of a toehold to get a start."  Like St. Thomas before them, some of these "doubters" are profoundly moved when they discover that although Science went to test the Shroud, in reality it is the Shroud which still continues to test the scientists.  We should not be surprised if God once again  converts doubtful skepticism into dedicated service.

 There at the Exhibit we had mimeographed forms for visitors who would care to share their reactions with us.  One of these from a gentleman from Laguna Beach, California, caught my eye.  He had written.- "Questioned for the first time my lack of belief... profoundly knees are still weak."  Only time will tell the full impact of the Shroud on this person's life, but I have a hunch that God has gotten another "toehold."

 Should we Christians be amazed at much a response?  I think not!  From that first Easter morning  the Magdalene "saw two angels  in the place where Jesus had at the head and one at the feet." (John 20:2l).  Could this be the very first description of the ventral and dorsal images of the Man of the Shroud?  People have responded in awe to the Sacred Image which it bears.  Fr. Gerald O'Collins,  S.J., originally a non-believer in the Shroud's authenticity, now uses it as "a" way by which some can be led to Christ.  He notes that in the Old Testament the primary emphasis was on the ear as the organ by which God was known ("Hear 0 Israel, the Lord our God  is  One." (Deut. 6:4)  However, a shift in the senses occurs in the New Testament when the Beloved Disciple Mark stoops to look into the Empty Tomb and "saw and believed." (John 20:8).  Are we so blind that we fail to discern that in the study of the Shroud our Lord is once again being "lifted up (to) draw all" (Jn. 12:22) to Himself?  Is it not possible that once again "when the time had fully come," (Gal. 4:4) God is using this autograph of His Son in His own Blood to make Him known as never before to a generation gifted with analytical methods heretofore not technically possible?  Mirabile dictu, could this "polaroid of the Resurrection" and the means to reproduce same via printed and electronic media all over the world now have the potential to be even more fully appreciated than it was 2,000 years ago? Truly, such implications are staggering.

 Although the linen is now legally the possession of the Pontiff and all his successors, its message is for all the world.  One day at the nearby Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit, I was to learn this truth phrased in a way that has stayed with me through the years.  Fr. Anthony Delesi said: "You know, Kim, we Roman Catholics have taken care of the Shroud for the last 800 years after we stole it from the Greeks who had been its custodians for the first 1200 years.  However, in truth it belongs to no denomination - possibly not even to Christianity - for in reality it is GOD'S 'LOVE LETTER IN LINEN' TO ALL MANKIND."

 Certainly the Rev. Dr. James Kennedy, a Presbyterian from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, acknowledges this truth in his wonderful sermon entitled "Save the wrappings."2  Dr. Kennedy observes that our Lord was born in a borrowed cave, wrapped in line swaddling clothes, and was buried in a borrowed tomb enveloped in a linen shroud.  In between these two events was "the Greatest Story Ever Told."

 Are not we in the twentieth century being called by God to use these final "wrappings", which God has taken such pains to preserve, to supplement our witness in reaching the hearts of those for whom He lived, died and rose again?  We would do well to heed Sir Wycke Bayliss who at the turn of the century astutely observed that there are at least two Gospel "traditions"  an early one in art, and a later one of the written Word.  The skill of the artist portrayed Him as The Son of Man; the pen of the writer of scripture brings us to that deeper truth that this Son of Man is also the Christ, the Son of God.

 The Rev. David Scaer, a Lutheran pastor, challenges all Christians with his profound article entitled: "The Shroud of Turin.- Protestant Embarrassment or Opportunity?"  In addition to Protestantism's natural aversion to relics, Scaer notes that undue reliance on revelation through the written Word fails to give just due to the word made flesh in and through history.  Scaer concludes his article as follows:

 The Shroud of Turin may very well be an authentic link with a past which was not only   sacred but real.   Acceptance of the authenticity of the Shroud obviously cannot be made a criterion for orthodoxy, but a prior refusal to consider The question borders on disregard of the historical claims of Christianity.  Perhaps we shall be given the same opportunity as Peter and John to see the burial garments of the Lord.  (John 20:6,7).3

 Our Lord Himself realized that His own generation sought a "sign," and He promised to leave them only one - the sign of Jonah." (Matt. 12:39) .  Lest modern-day Christians think such speculation is too far fetched, they would do well to note that for a first century Jew the story of Jonah was a parable of Israel's "burial" in Egypt and its subsequent "resurrection" as a natiom (cf. Ezek. 37:1-14); and that for writers of the New Testament, the Messiah must recapitulate the history of Israel.  Remember also that "the original word for "sign" used here in Matthew means "especially certain marks - a supernatural indication" (Bridget Smith, 1981, p. 61. Cf. Kittel). Those of us who believe in the Shroud's authenticity believe that not only did He keep His promise, but that this very "sign" is still with us today locked in a silver casket in Turin's Cathedral Church of St. John the Baptist.  Those of us who do so believe would do well to remember that "unto whom much is given, much is required." (Luke 12:48). We of all people should give special heed to a caveat offered by the late Anglican Bishop John A.T. Robinson:

 If in the recognition of the face and hands and feet and all the other wounds (on the Holy   Shroud),we, like those who knew Him best, are led  to say, "It is the Lord!", then perhaps   we may have to learn to count ourselves also  among  those who have "seen and believed."   But that, as St. John makes clear, brings with it no special blessing (20:29)--rather special   responsibility (17:l8-21).4

 That "special responsibility" is to get beyond the linen to the Lord - to see Him in the faces of the dispossessed, the victims of injustice, the poor, the neglected and all the others for whom He died.  "Facts" learned about the Man of the Shroud do not guarantee dedicated service in His Name,  Alas, these  "facts" can become nothing more than religious erudition in pious garb unless they lead to the deepening of the student's own faith reflected in concern for and service to those for whom the Man of the Shroud came to minister.

 The Holy Shroud provides a unique and wonderful opportunity for ECUMENICITY and EVANGELISM to walk hand in hand.  We who are called to be its advocates should not be focused on denominational converts or quotas, but rather  only on the commitment and quality of those who are brought closer to the Lord through their encounter with it.  Some may be called to be Baptists, some Orthodox, some Roman, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, or any one of the other multiple Protestant options.  Let us trust God to lead His people where He may, even when it is not in the direction of our personal denominational preference.  Let the believer discover new depth to a faith already possessed.  Let the "convert" bask in the joy of a life filled with new meaning and purpose.  Let all go forth to 'love and serve the Lord."

 Somewhere along the way the "Shroud Crowd" of the future will realize that the teachings of the Man of the Cloth are even more significant than the myriad revelations of truth which it contains.  Somewhere in this pilgrimage men and women devoted to its study will rediscover a central truth long ago proclaimed by Him whose image it bears:  "'I would that you were one even as the Father and I are one." (John 17:21).  When that day arrives, maybe the scandal of a divided Christianity "will begin to break down its dividing walls of hostility.  And on that day when Christianity is able to present one "Face" to the non~Christian  world, then maybe the former will be taken more seriously by those who use its very fragmentation as an argument against acceptance of its teachings. Like St  Peter, we who serve the apostolate of the Holy Shroud can then proclaim.-  "Gold and silver have I none, but what I have I will certainly give you" (Acts 1:6). What we have is a unique piece of linen which bears upon it an even more unique and significant gift for all the world - AN ECUMENICAL BRIDGE OF COOPERATION FOR THE PRESENT; A POTENTlAL GIFT OF GRACE FOR ECUMENICAL UNITY AND EVANGELISM  FOR THE FUTURE.

 1.  The Evening Office of the Holy Shroud.  Privately printed Order of Service for the 0fficial Dedication of the TURIN SHROUD EXHIBIT, Tuesday, August 16, 1983 at the Omni International, Atlanta, Georgia.
 2.  SAVE THE WRAPPINGS.  The Rev. Dr. James Kennedy.  Undated audio cassette produced by Coral Ridge Ministries, P.O. Box 5555, Ft.Lauderdale, FL 31310.. 
3.  The Rev. David Scaer.  "The Shroud of Turin: Protestant Embarrassment or Opportunity?"  Concordia Theological Quarterly, January 1979..
 4.  The Rt. Rev. John A.T. Robinson.  "The Shroud of Turin and the Grave Cloths of the Gospels."  Proceedings of the 1977 United States Conference of Research on the Shroud of Turin .  Bronx, NY: Holy Shroud Guild. 1977. p. 30.

Note:  All Biblical quotes are taken from the Revised Standard Edition

For our Italian readers, that portion of the above paper actually delivered in Turin may be read in Il Telo, Giornale Italiano di Sindonologia -Luglio-Agosto 1998 , pp. 4-6.

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