That is what Benedict XVI called the Holy Shroud this past Monday, and that is what I saw, too, just one week ago, on a solo pilgrimage to Turin.
Despite its brush with fame during the Olympics, the gorgeous city of Turin keeps a bit aloof from tourism, but the hardcore Catholic hordes descend for the occasional displays of La Sacra Sindone, and so do the vendors with an array of Shroud Swag. That enigmatic face was splashed all over the city on everything from magnets to newspaper supplements.
Crowds were huge, and managed impeccably. The line wound through a park that was once a walled royal garden, and past a modern railway stop and a half-excavated Roman ampitheatre. The day was beautiful, and the mood was festive, especially considering that we were awaiting a glimpse of a bloodied burial cloth.
An elaborate covered ramp had been set up outside the cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where the Shroud waited within. By midday, the volunteers in their colorful vests were looking a bit weary.
Blinking from the sun, we entered the shadowy church.
I didn't expect the image on the cloth to be beautiful, but it was: startlingly clear, backlit in its case and glowing like a silent film. Every mark on this legendary forensic puzzle was familiar, yet fresh and jarring. Even if it is "only" 800 years old, its very presence there was an astonishing link with the past; and the imprint—produced without pigment and concealing (in photonegative reverse) a masterful portrait of human passion hidden for centuries—was a sublime icon for the linked mysteries of suffering and faith. Even the face could be readily seen, battered and majestic. Non-flash photography was permitted, but I did not photograph it.
A few days later, Benedict XVI visited the same spot, "taking a break from the abuse scandals," as the papers put it. Before the Shroud, he articulated the fathomless stuff that drew me here and will remain with me always. The entire short address is profoundly moving, tender and wise, but this is the best:
"As children we are afraid of being left alone in the dark, and only the presence of someone who loves us can reassure us. This is precisely what happened on Holy Saturday. In the reign of death, God’s voice rang out... Human beings live to love and be loved. If love could penetrate the realm of death, life could thus reach into it. In the hour of extreme solitude, we shall never be alone."
More on my trip to come. (Oh, and yes, I bought swag: a holographic Shroud magnet with eyes that open and shut. Even in Chaucer's time, pilgrims snapped up tacky souvenirs of sacred sites; who would spurn such a hallowed tradition?)
For another, more detailed recounting, go here; I like this priest/pilgrim's wondering whether "reports of the death of Christianity in Europe aren't perhaps a tad premature"...