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Apr 2 Good Friday - the True Cross and the Shroud

Today we look at the foundational event for Christianity which is remembered all over the world. We also look at some of the fascinating stories connected to it such as the Helenas discovery of the true cross and the story of the Turin Shroud which purports to be the burial cross which Jesus' dead body was wrapped in .

The death of Jesus Christ on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem is widely accepted as being a historical event. It is confirmed by non-Christian sources. The crucifixion of Jesus, is an example of an event that Biblical Scholars suggests meets the criterion of embarrassment. Because this method of execution was considered the most shameful and degrading in the Roman world, it is therefore the least likely to have been invented by the followers of Jesus.

Since the crucifixion of Jesus, the cross has become the key element of Christian symbolism, and the crucifixion scene has been a key element of Christian art, giving rise to specific artistic themes such as Ecce Homo, The Raising of the Cross, Descent from the Cross and the Entombment of Christ. The very popular 2004 film, the Passion of the Christ, deliberately mirrored traditional representations of the Passion in art. But perhaps the most intriguing image associated with the crucifixion is the one on the Shroud of Turin.

The shroud is a rectangular piece of cloth, measuring approximately 4.4 by 1.1 metres. Its most distinctive characteristic is the faint, brownish image of a front and back view of a naked man with his hands folded across his groin. The two views are aligned along the midplane of the cloth and point in opposite directions. The front and back views of the head nearly meet at the middle of the cloth. We have an image of it on todays blog (see It appears to be a cloth that a freshly blood-stained body was wrapped in – leaving a brownish image as the blood stains seeped into the cloth. In some paintings of ‘The Empty Tomb’ depicted the scene of where Jesus body had been lain to rest on Easter Sunday, the cloth is often depicted as being left behind, sometimes even neatly folded. Currently the Catholic Church neither formally endorses nor rejects the shroud, and in 2013 Pope Francis referred to it as an “icon of a man scourged and crucified”. The shroud has been kept in the royal chapel of the Cathedral of Turin, in northern Italy, since 1578 after it was damaged in a fire in 1532 in the chapel in Chambery, France. There are some burn holes and scorched areas down both sides of the linen, caused by contact with molten silver during the fire that burned through it in places while it was folded. Fourteen large triangular patches and eight smaller ones were sewn onto the cloth by Poor Clare nuns to repair the damage.

In May 1898 Italian photographer Secondo Pia was allowed to photograph the shroud. He took the first photograph of the shroud in 1898. The camera was a relatively new technology having been put on sale in America ten years earlier. To Secondo Pias amazement and the fascination of the wider world, the image on the shroud became much clearer when he developed the photograph. In its black-and-white negative rather than in its natural faded sepia color. The shroud continues to be both intensely studied and controversial.

The wooden cross that Jesus was nailed to, according to ancient tradition was discovered and rescued as a relic by Empress Helena who was the mother of Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor of Rome. She travelled to the Holy Land in the year 326, finding churches and establishing relief agencies for the poor. Two historians Gelasius of Caesarea and Rufinus claimed that she discovered the hiding place of three crosses that were believed to have been used at the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves who were executed with him. To one cross was affixed the titulus bearing Jesus's name, but Helena was not sure until a miracle revealed that this was the True Cross. Fragments of the Cross were broken up, and the pieces were widely distributed; in 348, Cyril of Jerusalem remarked that the "whole earth is full of the relics of the Cross of Christ. Much sought after, the splinters soon became valuable objects, but difficult to authenticate. Simony is the act of trafficking for money in "spiritual things" is an offense against canon law, but became widespread in the Catholic Church in the 9th and 10th centuries. By the end of the Middle Ages so many churches claimed to possess a piece of the True Cross, that John Calvin is famously said to have remarked that there was enough wood in them to fill a ship. The exploitation and development of an economy based around relics was one of the stimulating factors of the Reformation.

Today Christians all around the world remember this key moment. Because of the experience of the resurrection, the cross is not viewed as a scandal, but as the fulfillment of the plan of God. St Paul's Christology has a specific focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus is directly related to his resurrection and the term and is a cosmic event with significant eschatological consequences, however, the belief in the redemptive nature of Jesus' death predates the Pauline letters and goes back to the earliest days of Christianity and the Jerusalem church. The Nicene Creed's statement that "for our sake he was crucified" is a reflection of this core belief's formalization in the fourth century