Benedict knelt in prayer before the Shroud of Turin, then spoke on the mystery of Holy Saturday, of which he saw the Shroud to be an icon. The meaning of Holy Saturday is perhaps especially dear to Benedict—between having been born and baptized on Holy Saturday of 1927, and having collaborated so closely with Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose theological imagination was certainly captured by the same mystery.
What resulted on that day in Turin in 2010 was a deeply pastoral account of Christ’s death and Resurrection, which explored some of the same central messages that he recently revisited in the last days of his papacy.
In Turin, Benedict observed that “humanity has become particularly sensitive to the mystery of Holy Saturday,” because the “hiddenness of God” has become so much a part of our contemporary experience of Christ that it functions existentially, almost subconsciously, in our spirituality. During a time when the problem of evil confronts us constantly, Benedict continued, we must all wrestle with Nietzsche’s proclamation that “God is dead!”: “After the two World Wars, the lagers and the gulags, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, our era has ever increasingly become a Holy Saturday. This day’s darkness challenges all those who question life, and it challenges us believers in particular.”
Insofar as the Shroud symbolizes Christ’s suffering and death, however, it also conveys a message of hope and life. Benedict mused that the image on the Shroud functions like a photographic negative, its contrast of dark and light being essential. So too with the paschal mystery, wherein “the darkest mystery of faith is at the same time the most luminous symbol of boundless hope. Holy Saturday is the ‘no man’s land’ between death and Resurrection, but One has entered into this ‘no man’s land.’” And the One who has entered has come to share in our death, in a historic and unrepeatable gesture of “the most radical solidarity.”
Benedict sees this to be the true power of the Shroud and what it represents: that in his descent, Christ takes on our suffering, our sins—“Passio Christi. Passio hominis.” (The phrase served as a refrain throughout Benedict’s trip to Turin, as it was the theme of the Shroud’s exhibit.)
On Holy Saturday, God incarnate entered “the absolute and extreme solitude of mankind.” Here Benedict pointed out that we have all experienced that terrifying feeling of abandonment, which is why we fear death—similarly to how, “as children, we are afraid of being alone in the dark, and the only thing that can comfort us is the presence of a person who loves us.” And that is precisely what happened on Holy Saturday, he said. Even in the darkest of times, “we can hear a voice that calls us and find a hand that takes ours and leads us out.” If love can penetrate to the very depths of hell, we are never alone or hopeless.
This assurance of God’s constant light and love has been a theme during the end of Benedict’s papacy. On his birthday last year, he confided, “I find myself before the last leg of my life’s journey, and I don’t know what awaits me. I know, however, that the light of God is here, that He is risen, that his light is stronger than every darkness; that the goodness of God is stronger than every evil in this world.” In the same vein, he spoke during his final general audience of God’s constancy in steering the barque of the Church, while expressing his gratitude that God has never left him or us “without his consolation, his light, his love.”
Pope Benedict concluded his meditation in Turin by describing the Shroud as an “icon written in blood. . . . The image impressed upon the Shroud is that of a dead man, but the blood speaks of his life. Every trace of blood speaks of love and of life.” He referred to the especially large stain at the corpse’s side as representing a “spring that murmurs in the silence; and we can hear it, we can listen to it amid the silence of Holy Saturday.” Indeed, when Benedict reflected on Holy Saturday as the day of his baptism, he made a similar statement: that “through God’s silence, still we hear him speak, and through the darkness of his absence, we glimpse his light.”
Ratzinger had seen the Shroud of Turin more than once before this occasion, but he named this particular experience of prayer before it, in May 2010, an especially moving one. The difference? This time, he carried in his heart “the whole Church, or rather, the whole of humanity”—just as he continues to do today in his newfound ministry.
Now is the time to look back on Benedict’s papacy and glean from it as much as we can, as we prayerfully look forward to how the Holy Spirit will work in our Church under a new pontiff. Like Benedict, we do not know what awaits us, but by reflecting on his theology of Holy Saturday, we can find a deeper understanding of what anticipation in the life of the Church is all about. And whatever this new leg of the Church’s journey brings, we can share in Benedict’s certainty that God’s guiding light and saving love will never leave us.
Tania M. Geist is editorial coordinator at the International Qur’anic Studies Association.