Pope Benedict XVI came close to an outright endorsement of the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin on Sunday. Speaking in Turin, the Italian city where the relic is kept he called the cloth that many believe is Christ’s burial shroud an icon “written with the blood.” Benedict didn’t address the scientific questions and controversies that surround the linen and whether or not it might be a medieval forgery. Instead, he delivered a meditation on the faith that holds the Shroud is Christ’s burial cloth. Benedict focused on the message that the blood stains conveyed, saying the Shroud was “an icon written in blood; the blood of a man who was whipped, crowned with thorns, crucified and injured on his right side.”
Much like the reported discover of Noah’s Ark last week, the Pope’s elevation of the Shroud as a relic raises the question of the importance of physical evidence and historical accuracy in matters of Christian faith. Among religions in the world, Christianity is unique in this. Christian foundations claim historical validity. We believe God really did create the world – though not necessarily in 6 literal days, and possibly using natural processes. We believe that God miraculously rescued the Hebrews from Egypt, that Jesus healed blind people, that his followers did miracles in his name, and that Jesus himself, literally, actually, and verifiably came back to life after a real and documentable death. Whether or not this Shroud is the actual burial cloth of Jesus is intriguing but only secondarily important. The real matter is that there really was an empty burial cloth that bore Jesus body and that inexplicably it was left behind in an empty tomb.
Christians believe in the objective, literal reality of the resurrection. We have always been willing to subject our claims to the observation and testing of science and history because of course we claim science and history as witnesses to our faith. This is where Christianity and Judaism differ from other religions. We claim that our stories are more than myth. Our faith rises and falls on objective validity. And so far science and history, when addressed with an honest, unbiased and open mind have been thoroughly supportive of Christian faith. This is what drives skeptics mad with frustration. No one has ever produced the body of Jesus. The tomb is empty. And that’s a historical fact that can’t be explained… away… short of believing what seems impossible – that Jesus literally rose from death.
“God, grant us faith to believe what is possible only through your hand. But also give us courage to subject our convictions to the scrutiny of skepticism. We believe, but help our unbelief by giving us the opportunities to see the living proofs of our convictions. Give us open hearts to face the truth, but also open eyes to see it when it is hidden. God, we believe you have acted in history. Show us the signs of your presence. Show us your fingerprints in time and space. Help us to find the significant relics that show your active hand in our world. And give us the faith to accept the consequences of these signs – that if you are present and active, then you also have a claim on our lives and choices. You are real and you are LORD who must also be served and obeyed. And that, we admit is the real challenge to those who do not believe. In short, they do not want to believe. Give us grace to follow the evidence where it leads… right to the foot of your cross… In Jesus Name…”