(reproduced from a lead article in The Call, issue 2004/2)
“Then cometh Simon Peter following him, and went into the sepulchre, and seeth the linen clothes lie, and the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself.” [John 20:6,7]
The world of religious relics is a mysterious and controversial one, and has been so for many centuries. One of the most famous relics is lodged in Turin, and purports to be an ancient burial shroud. When tests upon this cloth revealed what appeared to be the image of a bearded man with bloody marks on his body and head as if from scourging and a crown of thorns, wounds on his hands and feet as if from crucifixion, and a wound in his side as if from a spear-thrust, there was much excitement. Was this, as Roman Catholic devotees claimed, the shroud which had wrapped Christ in His tomb?
When more tests, including carbon-dating, suggested that the artifact was no earlier than medieval, many people were not surprised. The middle ages were, it seems, awash with dubious relics – pigs’ bones masquerading as those of apostles, enough nails supposedly from the crucifixion to melt down and make a warehouse full of kettles, and so on. In the case of the Turin shroud, one could only marvel at the subtlety and ingenuity of the fake. Certainly the features of the man accorded with medieval ideas of Jesus’ face – bearded rather than the clean-shaven man of earlier icons – and that lent weight to the view that the shroud was bogus.
However, that was not the end of the story. Historical record showed that a box in Oviedo, in Spain, had been there several centuries before the now-established date of the Turin shroud. In that box was a small piece of cloth, said to have wrapped Christ’s head. When test were carried out of that piece of cloth, there were indications that the available DNA matched that retrieved from the shroud. The dating of the shroud was in doubt once more!
More detective work was done on the shroud – for example, how it must have been folded when it suffered water damage, which gave some clues as to how it had been stored. One of the more startling finds was some stitch-work in the shroud which was typical of that found only in 1st century Judea!
That is how things stand in what can only be considered a fascinating endeavour of religious archaeology. But what if it could be taken further? What if the archaeological equivalent of, say, Joseph of Arimathaea’s laundry-mark was found on the shroud, or a provenance for the Oviedo kerchief in the handwriting of the apostle Peter? Would that confer any kind of legitimacy on the current holder of either relic? Would either suddenly acquire miraculous properties? Would either prove what the Bible says about the death and resurrection of Jesus?
All of the above would be claimed – make no mistake about it – but the answer to the above questions is certainly “No”. Would there be, notwithstanding, and increase in religious fervour, attracting new devotees to the relics? Almost certainly yes!
But consider the apostle Thomas, who would not believe in the resurrection, until he had seen and touched Jesus. Upon seeing his risen master, he said, “My Lord and my God”. Jesus said to him, “Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” [John 20:28,29]. On one level, this is clearly a call to people to believe without any experiential evidence. But the nature of Thomas’ belief is astonishing, and the way it brings him to his knees before Christ is little understood.
One could arguably call Thomas the first Christian. He was totally overthrown by his experience. It went deeper than simply touching Jesus’ body – he himself was touched by something more profound than a mere physical experience, more convincing than a persuasion to intellectual belief. Thomas was the first believer truly to acknowledge Christ as the Word of God, who was with God and was God. What a stupendous thing for someone born and raised in Judaism to address Jesus thus. And Jesus does not rebuke him for that, knowing that the Truth has been revealed to Thomas. No one can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Spirit [Phil 2:11].
Christ’s words do acknowledge Thomas’ belief, in all its spiritual depth. And, yes, they commend those who believed the accounts that Mary and Peter brought back from the garden, and those that come to believe now without physical proof. But they are also a call to the depth of belief that Thomas experienced, to calling out “My Lord and my God”! This is a realisation of the very thing that Jesus told his disciples: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” [John 14:9].
We are called by Christ to open ourselves to this deep, spiritual reality, in which we will know, by the Holy Spirit, that He is our “Lord and God”, by that very spiritual work in us that worked in Thomas. For those whom Christ gathers unto Himself in this way, there is no need to lay their hands, remotely, upon His wounds, by seeking a piece of cloth or some other relic – as there is no need for the light of sun or moon in the New Jerusalem. Blessed are those who, without such outward things, nevertheless come to the belief and faith of Thomas, and doubt no more.