What was that first moment of resurrection like for our Lord? What was that first sudden intake of breath like; which came from an up-to-then lifeless corpse – an intake of breath which cracked the silence of the enclosed tomb? Did our Lord gaze with wonder as he watched the return of color to his hands and feet and body (now marked with the signs of his crucifixion) as the pallor of death dissipated?
These thoughts have been in my prayer reflection now for a while and as they have remained I have discovered a needed remedy for my own spiritual well-being and, I think, for the well-being of our Church and world.
A little over a year ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Church of the Holy Face (Volto Santo) in Manoppello, Italy. This church houses what is claimed by some to be an image or imprint not made by human hands which captures the moment of our Lord’s resurrection. The image is found on a scarf size piece of very delicate and rare byssum fabric. One theory goes that the scarf was laid over the face of Jesus in an act of devotion as he was placed in the tomb and shrouded. The veil of Manoppello would then be akin to the Shroud of Turin in its witness and mystery. There is an ongoing debate about the authenticity of the veil and I do not wish to wade into those waters. I will leave that to those people with the appropriate academic and scientific credentials.
From an iconic point of view though what I do find intriguing about the image of the Volto Santo is that the eyes are opened and the lips are parted as if in an intake of breath. Is the image real? I do not know. Is the image a necessity for belief in the resurrection? No. Is the image worthy as an object of devotion? Personally, and here I stress “personally”, I say yes. Why? Because the Holy Face witnesses to the triumph of life over death and this is the needed spiritual remedy it offers.
We live in an age chasing after and fixated upon death. Despite all protestations to the contrary; the love of death is rampant in our day. Pope Francis has courageously noted that the economy has become the rule against which all human life and even creation itself is to be measured. To paraphrase the Holy Father; the market drops and the world is in a panic, people starve to death every day and no one notices. A world guided solely by the principles of the market is a world in love with death. Does the finance market have its place? Yes. Can the finance market achieve great good? Certainly. Should the finance market become the one rule over which all life is measured and judged? Definitely not. When it becomes the one measure we see the effects – baby’s body parts are sold to the highest bidder, euthanasia is promoted as efficient care, life becomes so stressed that social isolation increases and people (especially the elderly) are forgotten, the stranger, the person of different skin color and the immigrant are viewed solely in terms of threat, creation itself is disrespected and destroyed solely for profit and the list could continue.
Christians are not a people in love with death. We cannot be because we know that death has been conquered. There was that sudden intake of breath and the tomb has been emptied! But we are so surrounded by a culture in love with death, so inundated by it, that it is so easy to become cynical in order to just go along for the sake of going along. But we die when we do this and we are not true to what we know as Christians. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The one who once was dead now lives!
The Holy Face (the Volto Santo) reminds us. Contemplating upon the Holy Face and those first moments of the resurrection enkindles our spirits again in the face of our world and its vain and often death-seeking pursuits! The Holy Face seen as an image capturing the moment of resurrection offers a remedy of hope that our hearts and our world need. Again, is any particular image of the Holy Face necessary? No. Is remembering the resurrection and living our lives according to the resurrection necessary? Absolutely.
We are Christians. We do not proclaim nor pursue death. We proclaim life.