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The first thing you notice is that the linen is so ordinary. An eggshell-colored rectangle of coarse linen, now dirty and discolored with blood, lymph and sweat, it is nonetheless a remarkable testament of the passion of Jesus Christ. The Sudarium Domini is that other burial cloth described in the Gospel of John, “He saw the linen cloths lying there and the cloth which had been around Jesus’ head. It was not lying with the linen cloths, but was rolled up by itself” (John 20:6-7).
The Sudarium, say researchers, authenticates the more widely known Shroud of Turin, a 14-foot swath of fine linen believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. The Shroud of Turin is familiar to believers and non-believers alike, yet few know of the existence of this separate cloth that has lain for centuries in a tiny chapel in the principality of Asturias, in northern Spain. The linen has only recently captured the interest of the scientific world. Hidden from view for more than a thousand years, the Sudarium surfaces at the dawn of the third millennium, thrusting into the modern world fresh testimony of the suffering and death of a crucified man.
After journalistic investigations into the “Cloth of Oviedo,” as the Sudarium is also known, I departed on Ash Wednesday for Oviedo, Spain, to personally view the cloth that few have ever seen. Last summer I had traveled to Spain to interview the dean of the cathedral of San Salvador, Don Rafael Somoano, who explained how history and medical science have been unraveling the testimony of the Sudarium. On that occasion it was not possible to view the ancient cloth that contains the Blood of Christ. So profound was my disappointment that it seemed a physical blow. Unexpectedly, in February I received an invitation to return to Oviedo to see the Sudarium.
During the Ash Wednesday flight, I re-read Mark Guscin’s “The Oviedo Cloth,” as well as material on the passion: “The Day Christ Died” and the essay from the Mayo Clinic, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ.” In particular, I noted all the injuries to the head and face, since the Sudarium had been wrapped around his head while Jesus was still upright on the cross.
The mind recoils at the brutality inflicted on this victim — whomever one believes him to be. Blood first fell from his brow in the garden at Gethsemane. In deeply human distress, Christ experienced the rare phenomenon of hematidrosis, when capillaries burst and blood and sweat mix. During interrogation by Caiaphas, the high priest, Jesus was spat upon and repeatedly struck on the head and face. (Mark 15:65)
The lacerations on the lower neck, back, buttocks and legs from the scourging left torn muscles gaping open and his flesh weeping blood. Medical evidence indicates two soldiers, standing on opposite sides of their victim, beat Christ. The patterns of the scourge marks are visible on the Shroud of Turin. The whips, a flagrum with lead balls or sheep bone tied to the tips of the leather thongs, slashed into the subcutaneous tissue.
Crowning with thorns was not a typical practice — it seems to have been reserved for this singular victim — as no record exists that reports its use before or after Christ. Descriptions of the crown of thorns — more, a helmet of thorns — cause one to cringe in sympathy with such agony. Spikes an inch or more in length were hammered into the scalp.
In the hushed Camara Santa, a small chapel dating from the ninth century, the priest set the Sudarium on top of its silver reliquary. The pattern of reddish bloody stains and the pale sepia stains of mixed blood and lymph cover areas where scabbed blood is clearly visible. The eye is drawn to small dots off to one side. I recalled what Guscin had written: “Shortly after death, the Sudarium was wrapped round the head in the following way: It was positioned beginning at the back of the head, where wounds were caused by sharp objects. …” Piercing thorns wounded his head; this cloth holds the very blood that oozed from that mocking crown. Centuries fall away and breathing ceases: I am gazing upon the Blood of Jesus Christ.
Herodotus, historian of the ancient world, writes that crucifixion was a grisly practice employed by the Persian king, Darius. Alexander the Great crucified 2,000 victims at the siege of Tyre. From the 20th century discovery of the Qumran scrolls, we have the Pesher of Nahum (Qumran Cave 4) that reveals that the Essenes, a Jewish sect, also practiced crucifixion. Jewish law called for the penalty of “hanging on a tree” as punishment for blasphemy or idolatry. Cicero named crucifixion as the supreme punishment, and the public spectacle of such a cruel death was meant to subdue the people. Our English word “excruciating” is derived from the agony suffered during crucifixion.
The second century A.D. Roman historian, Tacitus, recorded that “Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished … Christians. Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus.” The gospel relates that Pilate tried to release Jesus, asking, “What evil hath he done? I find him not guilty,” but that the crowd shouted for the release of Barabbas. “Bar-abbas” means “son of a father.” At the fulcrum of history, the Son of God is condemned and rejected while everyman’s son, a convicted rebel and murderer, is preferred by the mob. The guilty man is unchained and the Son of God takes his place.
The news of CNN founder Ted Turner’s Ash Wednesday gaffe greeted my return. “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?” Turner accused his employees. The crowd is still urged to choose Barabbas instead of Christ.
Today, as in the time of Jesus’ passion, conflicting messages vie for the attention of the masses. Tuesday of Holy Week, the Dutch senate passed a bill legalizing euthanasia. But in France, a simple annual ceremony at Sainte Chappele, built by King Louis IX to protect a fragment of the crown of thorns, draws pilgrims from throughout Europe. The king brought the fragment to France from his journeys to the Holy Land during the crusades. The young are especially silent and reflective as they file pass this artifact of the crucifixion.
In England, where human embryos are approved for scientific experiments, an Anglican minister sees the shadow of the fifth plague of Egypt in the bovine bonfires dotting his nation, now terrified by mad cow disease. Yet, an April 10 Church of England Newspaper article reports that a fragment of the titulus cruces (Latin for title board) that Pilate had affixed to the cross of Jesus, has been kept in the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. It was discovered in 1492 during the restoration of a 5th century mosaic that depicts “the legendary discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem by the Empress Helena,” mother of Emperor Constantine the Great (326 A.D.).
Recently, that walnut board was studied by Carsten Thiede, a German New Testament scholar who believes the evidence supports dating the titulus at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Thiede, who teaches at the Ben-Gurion University in Israel and British journalist, Matthew D’Ancona, wrote a book, “The Quest for the True Cross.” The book details their study of the titulus. They wrote, “What is certain is that this relic is one of the most potentially important in the Christian world.” The titulus has three lines written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin containing part of the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Their book was the stimulus for an Icon Films documentary on the fragment aired in Britain on Palm Sunday. Icon was granted unprecedented access to the fragment; the Santa Croce monks removed the glass plates so that the TV crew could film the lettering at close range. Interestingly, the Greek and Latin lines are written backwards, perhaps by a Hebrew scribe who would think that to be correct, as it is in Hebrew language. Thiede claims that is not a mistake a fraudulent relic monger would make, since no patron would settle for such an obvious error.
There is something providential about the re-examination of many of the artifacts of the crucifixion that have survived into the third millennium. The Scripture says, “They shall look upon Him whom they have pierced.” Forensic scientists, historians, NASA experts, artists, medical specialists and others have laid before the contemporary world sufficient evidence of that “pierced one. ” Our age is not deprived of the evidence recorded in the gospels of the man who asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
Josephus, the Jewish historian (A.D. 37-100), wrote of Jesus: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man: for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive truth with pleasure. … He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, condemned him to the cross … he appeared alive again on the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold.”