During these last weeks our minds turned to the Passion of Our Lord. On Good Friday we looked upon the Cross held high for all to adore. We contemplated that and the other instruments associated with the events of the Triduum. I would suggest, however, few of us so doing were left wondering: what became of the material objects associated with those three days? A new book, Relics from the Crucifixion: Where They Went and How They Got There by J. Charles Wall, goes some way to answer this question.
First off, a clarification: this is a new book published only this year by Sophia Institute Press, but it is also the reprint of an older book with a different title published over a century earlier. It comes, therefore, from a world when the history and thought of Christendom still formed the basis of the Western Mind. Modernism, in all its many guises, had not yet penetrated the popular consciousness. Even then, after a century of so-called ‘higher criticism’ attacking, among other things, the historicity of the Bible, certain beliefs remained fixed. Thus Wall is able to take much for granted when addressing his readers.
In this book, Wall examines each object traditionally related in some way to the Passion. Then in a chapter dedicated to that item explores the history and the traditions in relation to what happened next in its story. As it turns out, some have better evidence for their authenticity than others, some histories are more plausible, but none are without interest. There was an obvious dilemma for Wall when writing a book with this subject matter, one that remains for readers today. How much do we believe about these objects? How much do we take on faith, and, equally important, how much do we dismiss because of our faith?
To be incredulous about all relics is to do a disservice to the particular, especially when an object’s credibility appears to have a strong foundation in fact. Wisely, Wall walks a middle path, presenting the facts and the fables as clearly as he can while leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions. Writing from an earlier period, Wall’s prose has a refreshing lack of the irony and cynicism found today when discussing such matters. That said, at times, what the book lacks is an up-to-date perspective on some of the items featured, the most obvious one being the Holy Shroud. It must be remembered, however, that the extraordinary events in Turin less than a decade earlier when the cloth was photographed for the first time, were still contemporary for the book’s author. Perhaps, it was too recent to be dealt with in any detail, and far too soon for him to fully grasp the controversy that cloth and the images on it would provoke. Therefore, perhaps prudently, he devotes but a few pages to that mysterious relic.
The book’s great strength is the author’s ability to weave history, legend and folklore into a coherent narrative. On the subject of the True Cross, he excels. His research in this regard is fascinating. Especially so when he connects it directly to historical events, thereby treating such artefacts not as some curiosity outside the sweep of history but rather as a catalyst for it. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of the Crusades. Here the author links that series of military campaigns to the initial discovery and then the subsequent loss of the True Cross. To understand what was really taking place during those tumultuous years, that relic, and its significance, is placed centre stage to all that happened. Given the ongoing wars and persecutions in the Middle East today, this observation seems now strangely prescient.
Also, in these pages, there is the exposing of age-old lies, finally shown for what they are. You will have heard them; I have; it goes something like this: today there are many shrouds, numerous nails, and enough wood to build a ship. Often those expressing such sentiments have no specialist knowledge of what they speak, but they are repeated nonetheless. These objections have a long pedigree. Many come to us direct from the Protestant Revolt of the 16th Century, their use then more to do with the so-called reformer’s theological grievances rather than the reality of the relics being debated. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see how they are discussed in Relics from the Crucifixion.
By way of example, one such accusation examined in its pages is that there are enough wooden fragments of the True Cross to allow for the building of a sailing ship. At this juncture, Wall wisely refers to the work done in the middle of the 19th Century by Charles Rohault de Fleury and his published findings in the1870 book: Memoire sur les instruments de la Passion. Swimming against the then European intellectual currents, de Fleury identified, catalogued, and weighed all the known relics of the True Cross. His research proved interesting, not least because of its exactness. He estimated that the wood needed for a cross, one approximate in size to that used for a crucifixion in Roman times, was 6.29 cubic feet of wood. When all the extant pieces purporting to be of the True Cross were weighed, they amounted to only 0.14 cubic feet – hardly enough to make a child’s toy boat…
So what, if anything, are we to make of these relics today? They are not the basis for our faith, but they can be an aid to it. This is an all too obvious statement to make, however, to those of little faith or none, it may need restating. Our faith is not from some mythic past based upon fantastic fable. It is one embedded in history. In fact, it gives meaning to that history. In the Western World, until very recently, it was the agreed and common practice for years to be marked out in a time before the Incarnation – BC- and one following on from it – AD. Even today, each Sunday, when we recite the Creed, with its mention of Pontus Pilate, we remember the historicity of the faith professed by placing it in an historical context. Relics are, if nothing else, solid archaeological artefacts that bring us closer not just to a former time, but, curiously, to an ongoing present reality, if one unseen. And, however abstruse, these objects remind us of a real event, one with nails and hammers, wood and a shroud.
Ultimately, therefore, what this book illustrates is how much these relics have caused history. Perhaps, after all, this is not so surprising, especially given how closely they are associated with the very Key of History itself. And, in the end, when that history has finally run its course, the witness of these relics will be discerned anew, when once again their marks shall be seen upon a Body, only this time one that comes in power and great glory.
image: The Cross by St. John of the Cross / Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP / Flickr