Have you ever looked at the Shroud of Turin?
When I was growing up, my mom had a paperback version of the book A Doctor at Calvary on the shelf in the kitchen hutch. I never tried to read it, but I looked at those pictures all the time.
At some point in my young adulthood I chanced across a hardback version of the book at a garage sale, and put it on the shelf in my own house. And still never read it. But this January, after a reflection on the yuck factor of the crucifixion—a reality that we have managed, in two thousand years, to render extremely sterile—my mother suggested that I read the book. And so I spent the early weeks of Lent wading through Pierre Barbet’s extremely dense, and sometimes overly sentimental, prose, a reflection on the five wounds of Christ, as shown by the images on the Shroud.
- The scourging. It was conducted using “the Roman flagrum, the thongs of which had two balls of lead or a small bone, at some distance from their end,” writes Barbet. These lash hit on the back of the legs and wrapped around the legs, digging into the flesh and causing first bruising, then lesions.
- The crowning with thorns. It wasn’t some little circlet the way artists have always drawn it. It was more like a cap of thorns, with a band around the head to keep it there. Blood flowed down and pooled above this band. Think about how much a head cut bleeds, how much it hurts. It makes me wince.
- The nails in the hands. This was the hardest part for me to read. Barbet, who evidently did a lot of amputations, nailed severed limbs repeatedly to figure out how the marks on the Shroud could have come into existence. Right at the base of the hand, just as it joins with the wrist, is a space through which the median nerve travels. He says that a nail goes straight through that no matter how you put it in. Not exactly severing the median nerve—but basically going right through it. And then, the crucified hung from that. And every time he moved—which he would automatically do because otherwise he couldn’t breathe—imagine. Just imagine. I’m not sure there is a word in the English language to express that degree of pain.
- The nails in the feet. By comparison, this is a cake walk. The feet were stacked, left over right, and a nail driven between the bones.
- The wound in the side. It seems like an act of senseless cruelty to stab a dead man in the heart, but it turns out that such a thing was legally required in order to release a body to the family. The lance pierced his heart.
Barbet, in the end, paints an excruciating picture of a man, weakened by lack of rest, repeated beatings, and blood loss, who finally became too weak to bear the weight of his own body on the cross, and unable to lift himself, slowly asphyxiated.
There is difference of opinion on everything related to the Shroud of Turin. Some think that it is real, others don’t. Carbon dating put it in the Middle Ages, but the Shroud was damaged in a fire long before that, so is it actually a product of the Middle Ages, or something much earlier that got a walloping dose of carbon when the smoke came through? Doctors don’t even agree on the ultimate cause of death. But it doesn’t really matter. Look at the pictures, and connect with an event that we ostensibly reflect on all the time—but which we never really allow to reach the touching place.