by Vlad Protopopescu – Sydney
Part 1 - The Shroud in the Liturgy
From the very beginning the linen wrappings in which the Christ had been laid down in the tomb have been viewed as material evidence of the Resurrection. The Gospel of Saint John (20, 3-9) tells us that “the other disciple, whom Jesus loved” reached the empty tomb ahead of Peter, “bent over and saw the linen wrappings, but he did not go in”. Peter saw that the linen wrappings lying there and the cloth which had been round Jesus’ head lying apart were rolled up by itself. “Then when the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, he saw and believed. They still did not understand the scripture which said that he must rise from the dead.” There cannot be any doubt that the Shroud has been surrounded instantly with awe and veneration, becoming the most precious relic of the New Dispensation. The cult of the new religion was to be organized around it.
A number of cult objects of prime importance symbolize the Shroud. These are the coverings of the altar table (hagia trapeza, the holy table) which usually number three, both in the Orthodox and Roman rites. The inner one called the katasarkion (literally "over the corpse") in the Orthodox Church symbolizes the clean linen cloth with which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the Body of our Lord when it was unnailed from the Cross. The other two coverings remind us of the linen cloths in which the dead Body was shrouded and with which it was buried (i.e. the Shroud and the “cloth which was round Jesus’ head”). They are usually white to symbolize purity, the external one being adorned with gold to symbolize the Light of the Resurrection, obviously the Holy Fire which appears miraculously and without fail over the Holy Sepulcher every Easter. There is also the corporal, in the Roman-Catholic Church and its correspondent in the Orthodox Church, the antimension (or antimensium, antimins).
The earliest mention of a linen cloth covering “the wood” when celebrating the Sacred Mysteries goes back to the fourth century in the writings of St. Optatus of Mileve (ipsa ligna liteamine coperiri). According to the Liber Pontificalis the Pope Sylvester “decreed that the Sacrifice should not be celebrated upon a silken or dyed cloth, but only on linen, sprung from the earth, as the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ was buried in a clean linen shroud”. The corporal was not to remain on the altar after the Mass, but had to be folded in four and put in the Missal or shut up with the chalice and the paten in some clean receptacle, and when washed it had to be first washed by a priest, deacon or sub deacon in the church itself in a place or a vessel specially reserved for the purpose “because it was impregnated with the Body and the Blood of our Lord”.(1)
The equivalent of the corporal in the Orthodox Church is the antimension. It consists of a strip of fine linen printed with images of the burial of the Christ, of the Last Supper, of the Cross and of the Resurrection, and the four evangelists. It is enclosed in another piece of linen called the eiliton which represents, according to Isidore of Pelusium, the sudarium that enveloped the head of the Christ. The antimension is kept folded in four under the Gospel on the altar table and is unfolded at the moment of the Offertory in the same manner as the Latin corporal, to receive the Holy Gifts. The antimension contains sewn particles of the relics of a martyr and therefore it represents an altar in itself. The name itself indicates that it was used instead of a table, an altar table. The antimension is consecrated by the bishop and distributed to all parish priests in his eparchy. The Liturgy can be performed on the antimension in any place.
The Orthodox Church uses the symbolism of the Shroud in some other moments. Most significant is the rite of the Proskomide, the preparation of the Holy Gifts. It is a separate rite, which is performed before the Liturgy, during the Orthros service, the morning prayers which include the Matins and the Hours. The priest receives the bread and the wine offered by the faithful from which he will prepare the gifts (dora, oblata) that will be transformed into the Body and Blood of the Lord during the Liturgy. He pierces the sides of a prosphoron (the small bread marked with the letters IS.XR.NI.KA. prepared and brought in by the faithful) with a knife shaped in the form of a lance, the lance that pierced the side of the Lord. Then he cuts from the central part of the prosphoron a piece called the Lamb (amnos, agnets) which would become after consecration, during the Liturgy through the Epiklesis- the prayer in which the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to perform the metamorphosis of the bread and wine - into the Body and Blood of the Lord. He places it on the paten along with other cuts from the same and other prosphoras. The “lamb” will be dipped in the wine contained in the chalice during the Liturgy. After the preparation is completed, the paten and the chalice are covered each by a veil and both with a third larger one called the Aer. They symbolize the cloths and the shrouds which were used for Christ’s burial. When the Great Entrance takes place the priest or the deacon carries in his hands the paten and the chalice covered with the small veils, wearing on his shoulders the large one. The same ceremony is preserved in the Roman Rite where the deacon at High Mass brings the chalice and the paten to the altar and places a special veil over his shoulders. After deposing them on the Altar (on the antimension which was unfolded during the intonation of the Cherubimic Hymn) he covers them both with the aer. The explanation given is that the aer represents in this case the stone with which the entrance of Christ’s tomb was closed. For that reason the aer is called also epitaphion (over the tomb). It should not be confused with the epitaphion, or plaschenitsa in slavonic (which means plainly shroud), which is a large piece of silk richly embroidered and adorned with gold, depicting the burial of Christ, exposed for veneration and taken in processions around all Orthodox churches in the world on Good Friday, in strict imitation of the rituals performed in Jerusalem at the same time. In the Roman rite the practice to use two corporals date from the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Pope Innocent III stated: ‘there are two kinds of palls or corporals, as they are called, one which the deacon spreads out upon the altar, the other which he places folded upon the mouth of the chalice (De Sacrif. Miss, II, 56). They are specially blessed before use. They are designated as: “linteamen ad tegendum involvendumque Corpus et Sanguinem D.N.J.C.” This special blessing is alluded to even in the Celtic liturgical documents of the seventh century and in the Spanish “Liber Ordinum” of about the same date.(2) The Gallican Rite (which is in many respects closer to the Byzantine one) knows of three veils, the “palla linostima”, “corporalis palla” of pure linen, and “super quam oblatio ponitur” a veil of silk adorned with gold and gems with which the oblation was covered.(3)
Historians debated at length the origin of the antimension, most of them agreeing that it came into existence only during the iconoclast persecution.(4) Its very function of a portable altar used in any circumstance precludes such a conclusion. It shows its very ancient origin. Persecutions were a feature of Christianity from the start. The simplicity of a cult requesting only an ordinary table, covered with a piece of fabric reminding one of the central tenets of the Faith, in an ordinary house, or in plain air, is an indication of antiquity. The first Christians had not yet temples, churches, stable buildings. They were meeting anywhere to perform the “breaking of the bread”, to eat the Body that was broken for the remission of our sins and drink the Blood of the New Testament which was shed for us and for many, for the remission of our sins. But that was not a simple commemoration but a sacred act, a sacrifice, to be performed only on consecrated grounds.
What could have consecrated anything more simply, more directly, than the piece of fabric that touched that very Body, being impressed with the majestic image of our Lord and penetrated with the very Blood that was imparted to the participants? We believe that copies of the Shroud were made almost immediately and consecrated by touching them to the Shroud. These cloths were used as altars. The Shroud might have been taken in processions around the Holy Sepulcher from the very beginning. What happened to the Shroud after the Resurrection?
To be continued...part 2