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Why did Jesus’ burial linens matter?

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Question: In John’s Gospel, why is the head cloth of Jesus found folded separately from the rest of the burial cloths?

Henry Smart via email

Answer: There are different views as to what this means. The most common explanation is that John’s focus on the grave linens serves to emphasize that Jesus’ body was not stolen. Normally, if grave robbers stole a body, they would not expend any effort to remove the linens in which the body was tightly wrapped. Indeed, it was not usually the body they were after. Rather it was the fine linens in which many bodies were wrapped. This is especially true of the face cloth, also called the sudarium.

Further, there is a subtlety in the Greek text that seldom reaches English translations. The New English Translation rendering of John 20:9 is “[Peter] saw the linen wrappings lying there.” But the Greek word for lying, keimai, means more literally “to lie outstretched.” And thus the impression is given by John and the Greek text that the cloths are lying there outstretched as if a body had been there, then disappeared, and the cloths just fell in place. There was no unwinding evident or signs of a quick, chaotic robbery.

As for the face cloth, it was usually the most valuable linen of all. But instead of being taken as a thief would likely do, it is carefully folded. St John Chrysostom says of this careful folding, “For a thief would not have been so foolish as to spend so much trouble on a superfluous matter” (“Homilies on John 20:2”).

Praying with the saints

Question: I know praying to the saints is important for us Catholics, but I don’t really understand why. Please help.

Frank Harbinger, Greenville, South Carolina

Answer: While you use the word important, the word beneficial comes to mind as an adjective that better describes the Catholic stance. It never hurts to have others pray for you. Indeed, it is a great blessing. And how much more so if the one who prays for you is perfected in holiness and close to God in heaven? While it remains true that one can also go straight to God, there is a long experience of the benefits of asking others and the saints to pray for us as well.

The wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-12) is an intriguing example of intercessory prayer. Presumably, Jesus knew the needs of the couple for more wine. But he waited for his mother to ask, and he even seems to resist her initial request. Nevertheless, he changes his mind for reasons that are not obvious in the text. Yet his mother’s request is central to his change of mind and his subsequent act of turning the water into wine.

So it is certainly beneficial to have others pray for you, especially if they are saints in heaven, and most certainly if your intercessor is the mother of the Lord!

The body of Christ

Question: Why does the priest break off a small piece of the host and drop it in the chalice?

Dana Tuner via email

Answer: The small particle symbolizes us in Christ Jesus. Baptized into Christ, we become members of his body. Our lives are immersed in Christ, commingled with him. In the ancient Church there was also the practice of deacons bringing a small portion of the host consecrated by the bishop to local churches to signify unity with the bishop and with one another in holy Communion. It linked the celebration of the Eucharist in a parish Church to that of the bishop. This particle was dropped into the chalice, much as now, but with that added meaning.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.

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