265 Miracles and Miraculous Cloths

Eric Metaxis has garnered well-deserved acclaim and awards for prize-winning biographies of William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He has also emerged as an influential figure within a flourishing Christian community in New York City.  His most recent publication, Miracles:  What They Are, Why They Happen, And How They Can Change Your Life (New York:  Dutton, c. 2014), bears witness to both his roots in historic orthodoxy and contemporary Christian witness.  Thus he sets forth, in the book’s initial chapters, a philosophical case for the credibility of supernatural workings, followed by a much longer section detailing the stories of persons he knows and trusts who have experienced various kinds of miraculous events.  “To those who might think these stories merely subjective accounts and not objective evidence, it must be said that history comprises the subjective accounts of human beings:  and from these subjective accounts we arrive at an ‘objective’ truth—which is itself still somehow and to some extent subjective.  There can never be a question whether such things are subjective; the only real question can be whether those subjective accounts are reliable” (#98 in Kindle).  

Metaxis’ philosophical case for miracles relies heavily on arguments set forth by great 20th century apologists (e.g. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and C.S. Lewis’ Miracles) as well as recent scholarly works such as Craig S. Keener’s recent 1200 page Miracles.  To believe in miracles first and foremost entails believing in God.  If one believes that God created, ex nihilo, all that exists, it hardly seems irrational to believe He could do miraculous things within His creation, including the many biblical interventions and (above all) the Resurrection of Christ.  In a remarkable conversation a century ago between Adolph von Harnack, the incarnation of Protestant Liberalism, and Adolf Schlatter, his orthodox counterpart on the Berlin theological faculty, Harnack said the two were basically in agreement except for one small matter:  miracles.  To which Schlatter replied:  “No we are divided on the question of God, for what is at stake in the question of miracles is in fact whether God is God or merely a part of the realm of subjectivity.”  

As Augustine wisely said:  “Miracles are not in contradiction to nature.  They are only in contradiction with what we know of nature.”  And no one has put the case for the miraculous than Chesterton, who said:  “my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America.”  Taking witnesses at their word is basic to historical inquiry and the judicial process.  Ironically, “believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.  The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant’s word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant’s word about the landlord.  Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both.  Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost.  If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.  If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant’s story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story.  That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism—the abstract impossibility of miracle.  You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist.  It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence—it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed.  But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred.  All argument against these plain facts,” Chesterton continues, “is always argument in a circle. If I say, ‘Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles,’ they answer, ‘But mediaevals were superstitious’; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles.  If I say ‘a peasant saw a ghost,’ I am told, ‘But peasants are so credulous.’  If I ask, ‘Why credulous?’ the only answer is—that they see ghosts.  Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland.”  Circular arguments, naturally, go nowhere!  

“The Greek word for miracle,” Metaxis says, “is ‘simaios,’ which means ‘sign.’  Miracles are signs, and like all signs, they are never about themselves; they’re about whatever they are pointing toward.  Miracles point to something beyond themselves.  But to what?  To God himself.  That’s the point of miracles—to point us beyond our world to another world” (#289).   Rightly understood, the natural sciences can do no more than carefully describe the physical world.  To explain it easily leads us to infer miraculous events—the improbable appearance of life on earth, the existence of our finely-tuned universe, why there is something rather than nothing.  “Reason and science compel us to see what previous generations could not:  that our existence is an outrageous and astonishing miracle, one so startlingly and perhaps so disturbingly miraculous that it makes any miracle like the parting o the Red Sea pale in such insignificance that it almost becomes unworthy of our consideration, as though it were something done easily by a small child, half-asleep.  It is something to which the most truly human response is some combination of terror and wonder, of ancient awe and childhood joy” (#853). 

Turning to the contemporary “miracle stories” narrated by individuals Metaxis knows and trusts, we’re first reminded of transforming prototypes—some (such as St. Paul’s and Chuck Colson’s) instantaneous and others gradual (e.g. William Wilberforce’s and C.S. Lewis’s).  Metaxis himself bears witness to God’s intervention in his life, through an inexplicable dream involving a golden fish (IXTHYS), changing literally everything for him.  In his student days at Yale he’d hungered from something to give life meaning, but God mercifully “had something more for me:  He gave me his son, a living person, Jesus Christ.  I realized in the dream that Jesus Christ was real and had come from the other side to me—to me—and now I was holding him there in the bright sunlight and I was flooded with joy at the thought of it.  At long last my search was over.  It was over.  And it was true.  There was a God and Jesus was God and he’d shown that to me in a way that only I could understand, in a way that utterly blew my mind.  God knew me infinitely better than I knew myself, had taken the trouble to speak to me in the most intimate language there was:  the secret language of my own heart.  That was that” (#2149).  Later on, another powerful dream led him rather specifically to write his book on Bonhoeffer.  Adding to his own story, he shares those of Frederica Mathewes-Green, a talented writer, as well as “Cisco,” a former drug dealer who now gives witness to the powerful change wrought in his life by his Lord and Savior, and Alice von Hildebrand, the widow of Dietrich von Hildebrand who is herself a distinguished philosopher professor.  

Healing miracles abound throughout the history of the Church—and they continue today in New York City!  Indeed, writes Metaxis:  “They are more common than I ever thought” (#2371).  Cisco, the former drug dealer, prayed that an acquaintance be healed of AIDS—and he was!  One of Metaxis’ good friends, Christine, personally witnessed the dramatic healing of her grandfather, who had been unable to stand or walk for six months.  One of Christine’s aunts felt moved to pray for him and “put her hands on the grandfather’s legs and prayed a very powerful prayer that he be healed.  A moment after she had finished, the grandfather stood up and immediately started walking.  They were all stunned to witness it.  Christine said that even now, so many years after it happened, remembering it makes her very emotional.  She remembers thinking that she couldn’t believe it was possible for a miracle to happen right in front of her eyes, that in just a moment’s time God could wipe away so many months of misery and pain” (#2660).  

“Miracles of Inner Healing” also occur with regularity.  Paralyzing guilt disappears, dissolved by God’s forgiving power.  Broken marriages are re-knit, massaged by the Spirit’s reconciling energy.  “Angelic Miracles” recounted by several of the author’s informants point toward the continuous workings of divine messengers involved in earthly affairs.  Small events—such as finding keys or the inspiration to make phone calls or speaking words that touch the heart of a judge on behalf of an innocent cab driver, and near-death experiences—may all rightly be considered miraculous, Metaxis says, given God’s intimate interest and involvement in every facet of our lives.  

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Last summer, Dr. Rolf Enger, an Air Force Academy colleague of Dieter Rademacher (the pastor of the community church we attend in Lake George, Colorado) gave a fascinating presentation on the Shroud of Turin.  He had been involved, 30 years ago, with a 40-man scientific research team (the Shroud of Turin Research Project) granted access to the Shroud to carefully weigh all the evidence regarding its authenticity.   Members of the team were experts in various fields, representing diverse scientific disciplines, seeking the truth rather than to either debunk or demonstrate the Shroud’s authenticity.  The team were all volunteers and had no obligatory ties to the Catholic Church.  When I asked Dr. Enger to recommend a book detailing the investigation he pulled out a copy of Verdict on the Shroud (Wayne, PA:  Banbury Books, Inc., c. 1981) by Kenneth E. Stevenson (a scientist) and Gary R. Habermas (an historian).  I secured a copy of the book and find it quite well-done and persuasive.  In light of all the evidence, “the more we learn about the Shroud, the more likely it seems that the cloth is what it purports to be—the burial garment of Jesus Christ” (p. 5).  The image on the Shroud is of a bearded male, 5’11” in height, weighing around 175 pounds, well-built and muscular.  His “wounds in their entirety exactly match the wounds Christ received as recorded in the gospels” (p. 43).  

A chapter entitled “The Shroud and History,” provides details regarding the cloth’s 14th century appearance in France with clues regarding its earlier history.  The image on the shroud resembles the face of Christ portrayed by Christian artists from the sixth century onward.  It is, in fact, “the standard face of Jesus in art” (p. 17).  Documents from the sixth century point toward the “image of Edessa, the ‘Holy Mandylion,’”—a cloth thought by some to have been brought from Jerusalem to Edessa by Jesus’ disciple, Jude Thadddeus, in the first century and then found in one of the walls surrounding Edessa.  This cloth was taken to Constantinople in 944, where it was “revered as the true likeness of Christ” (p. 20).  Following the 1204 sack of Constantinople by European crusaders, the cloth disappeared.  How it arrived in France a century later no one knows, though some think the Knights Templar played a role in preserving it.  When it was presented to the public in 1357 it was believed by some to be authentic and by others to be a “pious fraud.”  There seemed to be no way of resolving the controversy until quite recently, when new technologies facilitate a critical appraisal of the Shroud.  

Modern interest in the Shroud began in 1898, when an Italian lawyer, Secondo Pia, took pictures of it when it was publicly displayed.  Developing his pictures in a dark room, Pia was astonished to see the form of a man clearly evident in the negatives.  One can barely detect the form of a man when looking at the Shroud itself.  But the negatives truly brought to light a remarkable figure!  Obviously “the Shroud was not an obvious forgery.  Why would a fourteenth-century forger have painted a negative image?” (p. 71).  Subsequent, more sophisticated photographs detected no traces of pigment on it, indicating it was not a painting.  After more than a century of ever-improving scientific techniques, the authors “conclude that the scientists’ work made a forgery virtually impossible” (p. 122).  Interestingly, there is today more serious interest in the Shroud than in earlier centuries, and our more sophisticated the testing methodologies  increase the likelihood that it was the cloth covering Jesus’ body in the tomb.  

Clearly, there is blood rather than paint on the cloth.  And the image actually seems to have been generated by a “scorch”—a mysterious emanation of heat, almost like radiation!  The cloth itself is similar to others dating from first century Palestine, and some of the tiny plant pollens and spores found on it (discovered by microscopic analysis) are unique to that era and region.  Other tests reveal “that the Shroud image contains three-dimensional data” that can only be explained by it being placed on a recently-deceased body.  “The three-dimensional picture of the head of the man in the Shroud also revealed another surprise:  small button-like objects had apparently been placed over his eyes” (p. 82).  Coins were frequently placed on corpses in Jesus’ day, and a knowledgeable numismaticist concluded “that the coin over the right eye of the man in the Shroud was a lepton minted in the time of Pontius Pilate” (p. 82).  

Whether or not the image on the Shroud is that of Jesus can never be proven.  But the wounds on the man certainly match up with the Gospel accounts of His crucifixion.  He had been scourged, suffering some 220 wounds, with the Roman flagrum, the device used by Roman soldiers in the first century.  His head had been lacerated by a crown of thorns.  Bruises on his shoulder indicate he carried a heavy object.  He was nailed to the Cross with nails through is wrists, not his palms—something we now know was the Roman custom, though not known in the Medieval Era.  His legs were not broken, indicating he died on the Cross.  A wound on his side indicates he suffered a spear thrust as he expired.  “The evidence is consistent at every point.  The man of the Shroud suffered, died, and was buried the way the gospels say Jesus was” (p. 162).  A mathematician, collating all the data, estimated the probability that “we have 1 chance in 82,944,000 that the man buried in the Shroud is not Jesus” (p. 167).  A rather strong probability!  

So what does it mean for us in the 21st Century?  It primarily means the Gospels can be trusted, down to their rather specific details.  The Shroud also strongly supports the Christian belief in Jesus’ Resurrection—the “scorch” on the cloth may have been caused by a burst of supernatural energy as He arose from the dead.  And finally, the Shroud reminds us that philosophical naturalism—including its dogmatic denial of miracles—cannot explain a multitude of things, including the Shroud of Turin.  

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Paul Badde is a diligent German journalist, a devout Catholic who has devoted many years to demonstrating the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin and other sacred artifacts.  In the amply, indeed lavishly illustrated The True Icon:  From the Shroud of Turin to the Veil of Manopello (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2010), he provides summaries of the latest research that give reasons to believe in the supernatural origin of the both cloths, both well are preserved in Italian churches.  “The shroud [of Turin] has long been the most thoroughly investigated piece of fabric in the world.  And after all that, the origin of the image that rests on its fibers remains utterly inexplicable” (Kindle #140).  

Badde revisits the history of the Shroud, including its probable journey from Jerusalem to Edessa to Constantinople and ultimately to France in the 14th century.  Having studied the documents and visited the sites, he asserts:  “Everywhere it was as if we were following the trail of a protective hand that again and again mysteriously rescued this cloth from a great number of dangers” (#647).  And he sums up the most recent scientific studies regarding its composition.  Beyond the Shroud, however, the Veil (the small sudarium or napkin thought to have been placed on Jesus’ face) of Manopello has been little noticed or acclaimed—something Badde is determined to rectify.  “To this day the little burial cloth complements the large burial cloth and makes it accessible.  Together they fit into the Gospel of John [cf. Jn 20:7] like the last pieces of the puzzle” (#1143).  

Granted their authenticity, the Shroud and Veil are the earliest witnesses to the Gospel of Christ.  Written documents were composed two decades later.  But the Shroud, “with the traces of the Passion is the first page of the Gospels.  The delicate little napkin, which was revered for so long in Rome as ‘the veil of Veronica of Jerusalem’, is the second.  Both originate at the zero hour of Christianity.  Thus two images—and not any new scrolls—form the hot core of the Good News of Christendom.  The images were there when words failed—and the apostles were still speechless” (#1373).  To Badde, in “these two cloths the mystery of the Christian faith is presented as in no other document.  They marvelously fill up the brief text of the Gospel” (#1436).

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In The Face of God:  The Rediscovery of the True Face of Jesus (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, c. 2006), Paul Badde sets forth a deeply personal quest, involving scores of journeys and interviews, to validate the Volto Sancto (the “Holy Veil,” thought by many to be the legendary Veronica’s Veil) of Manoppello as the very cloth placed on Jesus’ face when He was buried.  Badde traces the Veil’s journey across the centuries until it was publically displayed in Rome half a millennium ago.  He also studies a multitude of ancient and medieval artistic works, mostly in churches, depicting Jesus in accord with the face on the Veil.  Though far less renowned than the Shroud of Turin, it portrays the exact same image.  Indeed, Heinrich Pfeiffer, a learned Jesuit professor and highly regarded specialist, says there is a “‘complete correspondence that results when you place the Face from the Shroud of Turin on top of that of Manoppello.’”  Thus we are driven to conclude “that the image on the sudarium and that on the Shroud originated at the same time’” (#1299).  If indeed the two images are authentic, they dramatically reveal to us the deepest truth of the Christian faith, for as Cardinal Ratzinger declared:  “‘God,’ of whom there can be no images, nevertheless has a face and a name and is a person.  And salvation consists, not in being immersed in namelessness, but rather in the ‘satisfaction in seeing his face’ that will be granted to us when we awaken’” (#182).  

Similar to the linen Shroud, the Veil preserves the face of a man, but on an almost transparent, iridescent fabric—byssus, the most expensive of ancient fabrics, which was woven with painstaking care from mussels’ fibers.  With modern microscopic technology, we find no traces of pigment, so it is not a painting.  Still more, it is simply impossible to apply paint to mussel silk.  The image must be the result of some other process.  To Professor Heinrich Pfeiffer, who meticulously examined it in the 1990s, the veil had probably “been laid on top of the large sheet in which the crucified Christ had been laid.  That would also explain, he said, why the Turin Shroud bore a negative image, and the veil laid on top of it, in accordance with the rules of photography, a positive one” (#1227). 

In Badde’s passionate perspective, the images on the Veil and the Shroud were inscribed by Christ’s face, supernaturally revealing God Himself.  “The Veil of Manopello is the sudarium of Christ.  This is the mysterious second cloth from the tomb of the crucified Christ that John the Evangelist discovered about forty hours after the death of Jesus in his empty tomb—together with another linen sheet, which is today preserved in Turin” (#3711).  Both cloths are incredible inasmuch as no naturalistic explanations suffice, and together they “reflect nothing less than the miracle of the absolutely inexplicable Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  They are not photos or painting; they are themselves marvelous new creations by God.  The two images are as inexplicable as life itself” (#3723).