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Medical explanation of Christ's crucifixion and other Easter stories

Blood of the Lamb

The nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches long. - Image by Sarita Vendetta
The nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches long.

This Sickness Is Not Unto Death

Above the doorbell on Floyd Fedance's olive-green house in El Cajon is a sign that reads, "It takes both rain and sunshine to make a rainbow." When he opens the door he is smiling, bright-eyed. Floyd, now in his early 60s, is terminally ill with lymphoma. A retired house painter, he lives alone. His four sons are scattered throughout Southern California. One or another visits him weekly. His house is simply decorated with a feminine touch — vestiges of his wife, dead 11 years.

Fred Fedance: "We are all going to die. You don't choose the time."

Somewhere in the house a cuckoo clock chimes. We sit in his den in the grey shadows of a gloomy afternoon, without lights. Floyd settles in a big easy chair near a table with a Lifeline machine on it, crosses spindly arms over his round stomach. There's a small depression on his forehead where they've implanted a reservoir under the skin for chemotherapy. Across the room is a huge Mitsubishi TV, which Floyd doesn't often watch. On the wall behind his head is a glazed ceramic crucifix. Floyd was raised Catholic and has never left the faith. He's getting around pretty well these days: walks down the block, drives out for a quart of milk, does little fix-it projects around the house. He is not a person who "tries to pack in as much living in one day as he can."

Connie and Sabrina Cruellar. "It's difficult for doctors to deal with me."

Floyd had part of a cancerous lung removed in 1987. In early '89, he began experiencing high fevers around the clock. "I was terribly, terribly sick." He went to his doctor and said, "I am dying and I don't know why." Eventually, lymphoma was diagnosed.

He was in and out of the hospital, drifted in and out of lucidity. "There are weeks I have lost. I have tried to piece it together, but I can't. It is lost time, and you don't know where it went or how it went." He wasn't supposed to make it through Christmas - he heard the doctors tell his sons that. Three or four times Floyd has been near death, but he was unconscious through these experiences.

He remembers lying in the hospital, half-awake, once, with his sons there. He heard them discussing his condition with a doctor on the other side of his bed. It was a very particular moment, one connected in his mind with hearing himself discussed in the third person. "That's when I realized I was dying. There was no regret or anger or fear."

Floyd does not, he says, think much about death. "We are all going to die. You don't choose the time. We don't have a guarantee. None of us do."

"After they crucified Jesus, on the third day, he rose to Heaven. That's the Resurrection. We all go up to Heaven after the third day." Floyd visualizes Heaven as a beautiful place where he will see all his family together. His parents, his wife, the baby sister his parents lost when he was a young boy. "But I have no way of knowing. None of us do. I don't take any stock in crystal-ball gazers or any of that sort of thing. People don't come back and say what it's like. Who can answer those questions except myself for myself?"

ln Floyd's mind, his life has not changed that much since he became ill. "I do the same things I used to, but less well," he says. Then he considers, gazing out the window. "I guess I love people more. Tb know what a human being is and to know how precious a human life is. There are so many nice people, there really are. I strive to be nice to people. We can't live in a shell. We aren't the only ones who have problems. God gives us all our crosses to bear. What makes life so beautiful is knowing you have friends." Immortality, for Floyd, is living on in the love people have for you, living on in their memories.

At night Floyd listens to the news, perhaps watches a movie. Then he is exhausted. "I pray a Rosary, say good night to the Blessed Mother. After that, if I have any thoughts, they are of her." He sleeps. Sometimes he dreams. "I don't have dreams that are scary anymore. My dreams carry me to different places to see different people. They are very nice dreams."

When Connie Crueller's daughter Sabrina was four months old, a malignant tumor was discovered in the infant's brain. Surgeons managed to remove a third of it. Although she spent her youth in a convent in Cuba, Connie was not religious. The weekend of the surgery, Connie was "hurting so much I wished I could just open my chest and take out the pain. It was really horrible. Sabrina was just lying there like a piece of meat — You're listening, aren't you, my baby?"

As she says this, Connie, lying on a hospital bed next to Sabrina, reaches out to stroke her daughter's thin, dark hair. Sabrina is now 21 but looks 16. Her head is craned at an awkward angle; every few minutes Connie readjusts a ruffled and embroidered pillow underneath it. Her daughter's round brown eyes stare straight ahead. Long, dark lashes blink over them regularly. Her hands are bent on her wrists and curled up, like a praying mantis. Sometimes she sighs thickly, and, under the blue bedclothes, thin legs twitch.

"She can't respond, but I know the words are dancing around in her head." Connie draws her fingertips over her daughter's forehead in a tickling gesture.

"When the doctors told me she didn't have long to live, a tiny voice in the back of my head was saying, 'No, she's not going to die.' Then all the horrible pain I had been feeling went away. It was just gone." Connie describes herself as a "foxhole Christian" — she came to her faith out of her fear of death.

Connie began to frequent churches, seeking her daughter's healing. She studied the Bible. "I was truly born again. Coming from Cuba, I didn't even know that phrase was a cliche when I felt it. trees looked greener. Everything came into sharper focus. It was as if my brain exploded." As Connie grew in her faith and developed what she calls a relationship with Jesus, the idea of Sabrina's healing receded into the background. "It was then," she says, "that Sabrina started healing."

Years passed. Sabrina walked, she talked. "She was a real chatterbox." Between the ages of 3 and 16, Sabrina functioned well. She began to deteriorate again in her 16th year. Her seizures — random brain activity she could not control — became more frequent. Out of the calcified mass of her old brain tumor, a new tumor formed. Chemotherapy and radiation, Connie says, only worsened the girl's condition. Connie discontinued these treatments.

Over the years, Sabrina has often been close to death. Connie thought about death a lot a ose times. She sees those thoughts as little dips in her faith, moments of doubt. She lays her cheek against her daughter's, runs a hand over the girl's hair. "But I never really believed Sabrina would die," Connie says.

"With all our human limitations, how could we really know who God is? How can we itty-bitty, arrogant, miserable little human beings comprehend God? Imagine the way the human eye works, the intricacy, and that's just one small part of a human being. Think of the ecology of the earth. It runs like clockwork, perfectly balanced -a change of just one small degree and it would go 'kaput.' And it's just the tiniest part of the universe."

When your faith is so strong, Connie says, when you believe in resurrection, death loses its sting. "When my mother died, I felt none of that devastation you feel when someone you love dies. Because the way I look at death is, of course I missed her, but she just moved from this house into another house."

Last year, Sabrina was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctors told Connie it would be three weeks before the girl could possibly be well enough to leave. After the first day, her fever broke. After the second day, she was off the respirator. On the third day, she was released from the hospital.

"It's difficult for doctors to deal with me," she says. "They try to say things to shock you into reality. But they get no reaction from me My reality is different from theirs."

The doctors say there is a tumor in Sabrina's brain. Only a small mass shows up on CAT scans. "They say what is causing all these problems is that the tumor has infiltrated into the other regions of the brain, and they cannot see it. The way I see it, the tumor is not there at all," Connie says. She pulls back a little to address Sabrina's face. "Hmmnn? The tumor is not there at all."

"And we are going to see her regenerate. And I ask her sometimes in the morning, 'Is today the day, Sabrina? Is today the day?' " □

— Mary Lang

Respiration during crucifixion (left); exhalation (right)

The Physical Death Of Jesus Christ

Roman and Jewish Trials

Soon after midnight, Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane by the temple officials and was taken first to Annas and then to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest for that year. Between 1 a.m. and daybreak, Jesus was tried before Caiaphas and the political Sanhedrin and was found guilty of blasphemy. The guards then blindfolded Jesus, spat on him, and struck him in the face with their fists. Soon after daybreak, presumably at the temple, Jesus was tried before the religious Sanhedrin (with the Pharisees and the Sadducees) and again was found guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

Exhalation

Since permission for an execution had to come from the governing Romans, Jesus was taken early in the morning by the temple officials to the Praetorium of the Fortress of Antonia, the residence and governmental seat of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea. However, Jesus was presented to Pilate not as a blasphemer but rather as a self-appointed king who would undermine the Roman authority. Pilate made no charges against Jesus and sent him to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Judea. Herod likewise made no official charges and then returned Jesus to Pilate. Again, Pilate could find no basis for a legal charge against Jesus, but the people persistently demanded crucifixion. Pilate finally granted their demand and handed over Jesus to be flogged (scourged) and crucified.

Nailing of feet

Health of Jesus

The rigors of Jesus' ministry (that is, traveling by foot throughout Palestine) would have precluded any major physical illness or a weak general constitution. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus was in good physical condition before his walk to Gethsemane. However, during the 12 hours between 9 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday, he had suffered great emotional stress as evidenced by hematidrosis, abandonment by his closest friends (the disciples), and a physical beating (after the first Jewish trial). Also, in the setting of a traumatic and sleepless night, he had been forced to walk more than 2.5 miles to and from the sites of the various trials. These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse hemodynamic effects of the scourging.

Carrying crossbar

Scourging

Flogging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution, and only women and Roman senators or soldiers (except in cases of desertion) were exempt. The usual instrument was a short whip (flagrum or flagellum) with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals. Occasionally, staves also were used. For scourging, the man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied to an upright post. The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers (lictors) or by one who alternated positions. The severity of the scourging depended on the disposition of the lictors and was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death. After the scourging, the soldiers often taunted their victim.

Medical Aspects of Scourging

As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim's back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.

Scourging of Jesus

At the Praetorium, Jesus was severely whipped.

(Although the severity of the scourging is not discussed in the four gospel accounts, it is implied in one of the epistles [1 Peter 2:24]. A detailed word study of the ancient Greek text for this verse indicates that the scourging of Jesus was particularly harsh.) It is not known whether the number of lashes was limited to 39, in accordance with Jewish law. The Roman soldiers, amused that this weakened man had claimed to be a king, began to mock him by placing a robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns on his head, and a wooden staff as a scepter in his right hand. Next, they spat on Jesus and struck him on the head with the wooden staff. Moreover, when the soldiers tore the robe from Jesus' back, they probably reopened the scourging wounds.

The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a preshock state. Moreover, hematidrosis had rendered his skin particularly tender. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus' physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.

Crucifixion

Crucifixion probably first began among the Persians. Alexander the Great introduced the practice to Egypt and Carthage, and the Romans appear to have learned of it from the Carthaginians. Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering. It was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution and usually was reserved only for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the vilest of criminals. Roman law usually protected Roman citizens from crucifixion, except perhaps in the case of desertion by soldiers.

In its earliest form in Persia, the victim was either tied to a tree or was tied to or impaled on an upright post, usually to keep the guilty victim's feet from touching holy ground. Only later was a true cross used; it was characterized by an upright post (stipes) and a horizontal crossbar (patibulum), and it had several variations. Although archeological and historical evidence strongly indicates that the low Tau cross was preferred by the Romans in Palestine at the time of Christ, crucifixion practices often varied in a given geographical region and in accordance with the imagination of the executioners, and the Latin cross and other forms also may have been used.

It was customary for the condemned man to carry his own cross from the flogging post to the site of crucifixion outside the city walls. He was usually naked, unless this was prohibited by local customs. Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lbs., only the crossbar was carried. The patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lbs., was placed across the nape of the victim's neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms then were tied to the crossbar. The processional to the site of crucifixion was led by a complete Roman military guard, headed by a centurion. One of the soldiers carried a sign (titulus) on which the condemned man's name and crime were displayed. Later, the titulus would be attached to the top of the cross. The Roman guard would not leave the victim until they were sure of his death.

Outside the city walls was permanently located the heavy upright wooden stipes, on which the patibulum would be secured. In the case of the Tau cross, this was accomplished by means of a mortise and tenon joint, with or without reinforcement by ropes. Tb prolong the crucifixion process, a horizontal wooden block or plank, serving as a crude seat (sedile or sedulum), often was attached midway down the stipes. Only very rarely, and probably later than the time of Christ, was an additional block (suppedaneum) employed for transfixion of the feet.

At the site of execution, by law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) as a mild analgesic. The criminal was then thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the patibulum. The hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing apparently was preferred by the Romans. The archeological remains of a crucified body, found in an ossuary near Jerusalem and dating from the time of Christ, indicate that the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches long with a square shaft 3/8 inch across. Furthermore, ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin have documented that the nails commonly were driven through the wrists rather than the palms.

After both arms were fixed to the crossbar, the patibulum and the victim, together, were lifted onto the stipes. On the low cross, four soldiers could accomplish this relatively easily. However, on the tall cross, the soldiers used either wooden forks or ladders.

Next, the feet were fixed to the cross, either by nails or ropes. Ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin suggest that nailing was the preferred Roman practice. Although the feet could be fixed to the sides of the stipes or to a wooden footrest (suppedaneum), they usually were nailed directly to the front of the stipes. To accomplish this, flexion of the knees may have been quite prominent, and the bent legs may have been rotated laterally.

When the nailing was completed, the titulus was attached to the cross, by nails or cords, just above the victim's head. The soldiers and the civilian crowd often taunted and jeered the condemned man, and the soldiers customarily divided up his clothes among themselves. The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days and appears to have been inversely related to the severity of the scourging. However, even if the scourging had been relatively mild, the Roman soldiers could hasten death by breaking the legs below the knees (crurifragium or skelokopia).

Not uncommonly, insects would light upon or burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, ears, and nose of the dying and helpless victim, and birds of prey would tear at these sites. Moreover, it was customary to leave the corpse on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals. However, by Roman law, the family of the condemned could take the body for burial, after obtaining permission from the Roman judge.

Since no one was intended to survive crucifixion, the body was not released to the family until the soldiers were sure the victim was dead. By custom, one of the Roman guards would pierce the body with a sword or lance. Traditionally, this had been considered a spear wound to the heart through the right side of the chest — a fatal wound probably taught to most Roman soldiers. The Shroud of Turin documents this form of injury. Moreover, the standard infantry spear, which was 5 to 6 ft. long, could easily have reached the chest of a man crucified on the customary low cross.

Medical Aspects of Crucifixion

With a knowledge of both anatomy and ancient crucifixion practices, one may reconstruct the probable medical aspects of this form of slow execution. Each wound apparently was intended to produce intense agony, and the contributing causes of death were numerous.

The scourging prior to execution served to weaken the condemned man and, if blood loss was considerable, to produce orthostatic hypotension and even hypovolemic shock. When the victim was thrown to the ground on his back, in preparation for transfixion of the hands, his scourging wounds most likely would become tom open again and contaminated with dirt. Furthermore, with each respiration, the painful scourging wounds would be scraped against the rough wood of the stipes. As a result, blood loss from the back probably would continue throughout the crucifixion ordeal.

With arms outstretched but not taut, the wrists were nailed to the patibulum. It has been shown that the ligaments and bones of the wrist can support the weight of a body hanging from them, but the palms cannot. Accordingly, the iron spikes probably were driven between the radius and the carpals or between the two rows of carpal bones, either proximal to or through the strong bandlike flexor retinaculum and the various intercarpal ligaments. Although a nail in either location in the wrist might pass between the bony elements and thereby produce no fractures, the likelihood of painful periosteal injury would seem great. Furthermore, the driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.

Most commonly, the feet were fixed to the front of the stipes by means of an iron spike driven through the first or second intermetatarsal space, just distal to the tarsometatarsal joint. It is likely that the deep peroneal nerve and branches of the medial and lateral plantar nerves would have been injured by the nails. Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.

The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hyper-carbia would soon result. The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further.

Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.

The actual cause of death by crucifixion was multifactorial and varied somewhat with each case, but the two most prominent causes probably were hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Other possible contributing factors included dehydration, stress-induced arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure with the rapid accumulation of pericardial and perhaps pleural effusions. Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to asphyxic death within minutes. Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or "out of the cross").

Crucifixion of Jesus

After the scourging and the mocking, at about 9 a.m., the Roman soldiers put Jesus' clothes back on him and then led him and two thieves to be crucified. Jesus apparently was so weakened by the severe flogging that he could not carry the patibulum from the Praetorium to the site of crucifixion one-third of a mile away. Simon of Cyrene was summoned to carry Christ's cross, and the processional then made its way to Golgotha (or Calvary), an established crucifixion site.

Here, Jesus' clothes, except for a linen loincloth, again were removed, thereby probably reopening the scourging wounds. He then was offered a drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) but, after tasting it, refused the drink. Finally, Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. Although scriptural references are made to nails in the hands, these are not at odds with the archeological evidence of wrist wounds, since the ancients customarily considered the wrist to be a part of the hand. The titulus was attached above Jesus' head. It is unclear whether Jesus was crucified on the Tau cross or the Latin cross; archeological findings favor the former and early tradition the latter. The fact that Jesus later was offered a drink of wine vinegar from a sponge placed on the stalk of the hyssop plant strongly supports the belief that Jesus was crucified on the short cross.

The soldiers and the civilian crowd taunted Jesus throughout the crucifixion ordeal, and the soldiers cast lots for his clothing. Christ spoke seven times from the cross. Since speech occurs during exhalation, these short, terse utterances must have been particularly difficult and painful. At about 3 p.m. that Friday, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, bowed his head, and died. The Roman soldiers and onlookers recognized his moment of death.

Since the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the crosses after sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath, they asked Pontius Pilate to order crucifracture to hasten the deaths of the three crucified men. The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Rather, one of the soldiers pierced his side, probably with an infantry spear, and produced a sudden flow of blood and water. Later that day, Jesus' body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb.

Death of Jesus

Two aspects of Jesus' death have been the source of great controversy, namely, the nature of the wound in his side and the cause of his death after only several hours on the cross.

The Gospel of John describes the piercing of Jesus' side and emphasizes the sudden flow of blood and water. Some authors have interpreted the flow of water to be ascites or urine, from an abdominal midline perforation of the bladder. However, the Greek word used by John clearly denoted laterality and often implied the ribs. Therefore, it seems probable that the wound was in the thorax and well away from the abdominal midline.

It remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure.

Although the side of the wound was not designated by John, it traditionally has been depicted on the right side. Supporting this tradition is the fact that a large flow of blood would be more likely with a perforation of the distended and thin-walled right atrium or ventricle than the thick-walled and contracted left ventricle. Although the side of the wound may never be established with certainty, the right seems more probable than the left.

Some of the skepticism in accepting John's description has arisen from the difficulty in explaining, with medical accuracy, the flow of both blood and water. Part of this difficulty has been based on the assumption that the blood appeared first, then the water. However, in the ancient Greek, the order of words generally denoted prominence and not necessarily a time sequence. Therefore, it seems likely that John was emphasizing the prominence of blood rather than its appearance preceding the water.

Therefore, the water probably represented serous pleural and pericardial fluid and would have preceded the flow of blood and been smaller in volume than the blood. Perhaps in the setting of hypovolemia and impending acute heart failure, pleural and pericardial effusions may have developed and would have added to the volume of apparent water. The blood, in contrast, may have originated from the right atrium or the right ventricle or perhaps from a hemopericardium.

Jesus' death after only three to six hours on the cross surprised even Pontius Pilate. The fact that Jesus cried out in a loud voice and then bowed his head and died suggests the possibility of a catastrophical terminal event. One popular explanation has been that Jesus died of cardiac rupture. In the setting of the scourging and crucifixion, with associated hypovolemia, hypoxemia, and perhaps an altered coagulable state, friable noninfective thrombotic vegetations could have formed on the aortic or mitral valve. These then could have dislodged and embolized into the coronary circulation and thereby produced an acute transmural myocardial infarction. Thrombotic valvular vegetations have been reported to develop under analogous acute traumatic conditions. Rupture of the left ventricle free wall may occur, though uncommonly, in the first few hours following infarction.

However, another explanation may be more likely. Jesus' death may have been hastened simply by his state of exhaustion and by the severity of the scourging, with its resultant blood loss and preshock state. The fact that he could not carry his patibulum supports this interpretation. The actual cause of Jesus' death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock, exhaustion, asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure. A fatal cardiac arrhythmia may have accounted for the apparent catastrophic terminal event.

Thus, it remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure. However, the important feature may be not how he died but rather whether he died. Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge. □

(This article, originally titled "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," by William E. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, MDiv; and Floyd Hosmer, MS, AMI, is reprinted by permission of the Mayo Foundation.)

I could not elicit that promise

Strange child I suppose I was. It was infinitely more amazing and mysterious to me that Lazarus had been raised from the dead than that Jesus rose from that same place. In my mind, Jesus' rising was the essence of His business, but Lazarus was like us and his rising, therefore, more miraculous.

The nature of faith. By assigning a "rising and resurrecting — that's your job" status to Jesus, I was accepting Him as Savior. Or accepting anyway the faith of my parents, who swore to His validity. It is the presence of Jesus Christ and the acceptance of His resurrection that is all-consuming and upon which the foundation of all of Christian faith is built.

The "death not be the end to all things" and the symbols of renewal and regeneration were the business of Jesus. "This sickness is not unto death," He said, when informed of Lazarus's dying. The proof that it not be unto death lies not in Lazarus being called forth from the grave but in Jesus being there in order to call him forth. Christian existentialist Kierkegaard wrote:

No, it is not because Lazarus was awakened from the dead — not for this can one say this sickness is not unto death; but because He lives, therefore this sickness is not unto death.... Christianly understood death is by no means the last thing of all; hence, it is only a little event within that which is all, an eternal life.

I believe in this "the resurrection and the life." Still, whatever was the eternal component in death, it was not visible from this world. When someone died, they were placed into the ground and never seen again — never to be touched or heard. Yet, how was it Lazarus rose? It had to be Jesus raising people from the dead, for we could not rise on our own accord. Lazarus rose. This was a matter of some interest to me.

It came to me suddenly one day: Daddy's old. And then, He's so old he's gonna die soon.

I was outside, leaning over the back fence, watching Butch and his little sister climbing up and sliding down the big hill of sand they had in their back yard. They were yelling at me, "You can't play with us." But I knew that. I wasn't allowed to play with Butch because my parents said he was bad, and preachers' children don't play with bad children. I watched Butch and his sister. I envied them their hill of sand. This was Gary, Indiana, and there were lots of hills of sand but none as close to me or as monstrous looking as the one in Butch's back yard. Of course, since I could never play on it, it might as well have been as far away as the Indiana Sand Dunes.

Butch and his sister squealed with pleasure. I watched. Then suddenly it hit me: Daddy was old and he was going to die soon. I don't know where the thought came from or why it came at that particular moment. All I know is that I jumped down from my perch on the fence and ran into the house, where I collapsed into a quiet corner and began to weep hysterically. I prayed to God, begging him to not let my father die, to save my daddy, to save my daddy, because I didn't know how I could live without my daddy. I prayed and prayed and thought I would die from the grief and the breaking in my heart. But just as suddenly as my fears had erupted, they vanished, and I went on back to my perch watching Butch.

Soon after that, my father was transferred to another church, and we all moved back to Chicago. I never had another "attack," but the memory of that unexplained grieving stayed with me, and I knew it would be something I would never forget. Forget? I became obsessed with it. I felt my horror and my sadness. I felt my fear and loneliness. I did not weep or pray but increasingly became outraged and filled with anger. I knew God would kill my daddy, and I felt helpless to stop Him. The more I felt my fear and my pending abandonment, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I wanted to meet this God personally and tell Him exactly what I thought about His death, the death He would destroy my father with. Finally, I determined that I would meet God, and I would do battle with Him, and I would demand that He save my daddy. I would demand that. I would insist.

The half bottle of aspirin that I took failed to do what I thought it would do. I did not meet God. I could not do battle with Him. Nothing, nothing happened. I was deeply disappointed, of course, but I dealt with my disappointment by denying that any God existed in the first place. Since I could not go to Him, He must not be. Did He not hear my call? Did He not hear my insistence on doing battle with Him? He must not exist.

This needs to be explained, perhaps. I was 11 years old and I was furious at God, this loving God, who would take my daddy and kill him to death, leaving me without the one person that I thought I could count on to love me. I could not count on my mother, for I believed that I was not her preference and that it was my brothers she preferred. Even if I had no brothers, I believe she would not have preferred me because I was never the sort of dainty, fragile, pretty daughter I imagined she had dreamed of. I depended on my father's love, and the idea of his death was unbearable. I knew that he was old. He was 30 years older than my mother. He was older than my grandmother, older than my grandfather. His end was near.

I would do battle with God. It did not occur to me that in dying to meet God, I would end and that there would be no return for me. I thought that I could go to God and fight and still return to live my life with my daddy. It was a child's logic. It was a child's determination to so save the life of her father that though the death of others was final and real, her own death was unimaginable.

I would go and come back. God's ass would be mine.

My inability to meet Him convinced me of His nonexistence. I scorned this God in whom my father put so much of his faith. In my mind, I spit on Him. He was not worthy of my attention. And because I could no longer believe in this God, I could feel also my withdrawal from my father, who was so full of belief that on Sunday mornings he cried out, "My God, my God," as he danced back and forth across the pulpit. His God. Let him be then welcome to his God; I wanted no part of Him.

Insanity? If I had not so fervently believed, I could not have lost my faith so completely.

Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Mary and Martha, was raised from the dead by Jesus after having lain in the grave for four days.

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.

For four days Lazarus had lain in the grave. "Lord, by this time he stinketh," said Martha.

I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

The stone was removed from the grave of Lazarus, and Jesus cried out for Lazarus to come forth. Lazarus, who was dead and bound hand and foot with graveclothes, his face bound about with a napkin, then did come forth. This, according to John, was the beginning of the ultimate end to Christ's final destiny... a destiny He predicted would happen should He raise Lazarus from the dead. What He had done for Lazarus spread throughout the land, and the Pharisees were sorely upset.

Perhaps all I ever wanted was a promise that He do for my daddy what He had done for Lazarus.

Lazarus was raised from the dead, and from beneath the stone he stood and walked the land once more, stinking in his burial clothes. For four days and nights he had lain in his grave. An absence and then yet a presence in the world. Lazarus, come forth. He walked home to where he lived with Martha and Mary and there continued on about his business, a man who had once been dead and yet had risen.

No one asked Lazarus anything — whether he wanted to rise again to live once more in order to die another time, never to be raised. No one asked what it was he saw while dead or where, if anywhere, he went while in death. Lazarus, come forth "that the Son of God be glorified thereby."

When Jesus rose from the dead, the people around Him were troubled and imagined that they had seen a spirit. Jesus showed them His hands and His feet, where the nails had been driven, and sat with them, eating a piece of broiled fish and of a honeycomb until they believed. Still, Thomas, some distance away when told of this miracle, said that this was impossible to believe, and unless he could put his own finger into where the nails had been and thrust his hand into his side, he wouldn't believe. When Thomas did thrust his hand into the side of Jesus, then he believed.

Yet Thomas was with Jesus when Lazarus was raised. We have no record of his demanding to touch Lazarus in order to be convinced.

Lazarus, what say ye?

Kierkegaard says we don't need to know anything about Lazarus. Lazarus rising is incidental. Meaning is contained in Jesus' presence, and it is in the actuality of His being that says this sickness is not unto death. It is in the Resurrection of Jesus that lies the proof that this sickness is not unto death. Jesus lives, and that is the reason and the answer for Christian hope. He who was once dead now lives.

It was not because that 11-year-old child that I was could not die and go to meet God that I lost faith. It was because God would not be resurrected and face my accusations of His betrayal. He would not come alive, and in that refusal, I embraced the impossibility of His existence.

Too, in spite of this Christian faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, what is it we hold onto in this life? The lives of our loved ones. Why was Lazarus considered so incidental and unimportant? I prayed for the Lazarus in my daddy to come true. It is life we desire. That Lazarus lived and was raised from the dead promised a hope that my daddy could also be saved.

I could not elicit that promise.

What say ye, Lazarus? What say ye?

Was your faith made stronger because you were called forth from the dead? Was this an act of so little meaning for you?

But Lazarus either could not or would not report. He stumbled around, following after Jesus like so many others. "I don't recall a thing I saw while dead. I don't recall a thing I did while dead. It was a long sleeping."

Did you see heaven, Lazarus? "No, I don't believe I did."

His being raised from the dead was for the glory of Jesus, so that others might see and believe in the Resurrection. I pleaded for my daddy's immortality. I believed in my own sickness not being unto death. I thought the answer God gave me from His absence and His being unavailable to me was that the sickness was unto death, and from death there can be no returning... not of God, not of my daddy, and — should I have died — not of me. Had I been lied to and there can be no Lazarus?

God's concealing and revealing. In death the concealment. In the Resurrection, the revelation. But I could see only the concealment, and the revelation never came.

The burial cloths were taken off the body of Lazarus and put aside for later use. He went home, ate dinner, and went to sleep, ending this spectacular day. No one asked him anything, and he, after all, had nothing to say.

My daddy would not be Lazarus. His death would be always. My death would be always. I grieved for us all. Jesus, resurrected or not, kept silent. The things of this world were apparently not His concern.

— M. Corinne Mackey

"Sister Francesca felt with her finger that in the middle of one section there ran a nerve."

The Incorruptible Flesh

A magazine advertisement illustrates a young widow looking up to a stormy sky with concern that her loved one might be ravaged by the putrefying dampness. "There's deep consolation," coos the ad copy, "for those who know the casket of a dear one is protected against water in the ground by a Clark Metal Grave Vault."

That may be little consolation to the departed, who swiftly rots in his airtight casket due to the aggressive presence of anaerobic bacteria - the airless variety that usually thrives in the human digestive tract. The little organisms that aided your digestion of that delicious milk-fed veal will eventually aid in digesting you.

  • Chronological order of putrefaction:
  • One to three days: Greenish discoloration of the abdominal wall. Odor of putrefaction is noticeable. The eyeballs become soft.
  • Three to five days: Green discoloration is general over abdomen and genitals. Irregular green patches appear over back of neck, chest, and lower extremities.
  • A bloody, frothy purge may pour from the mouth.
  • Eight to ten days: The green discoloration is general over the body. The color is gradually becoming red, due to the pressure of decomposed blood. The abdomen is distended with gas. The corneas have collapsed. The fatty tissue beneath the skin is infiltrated with gas and, on touching it, imparts to the hand a characteristic sensation called "crepitation," due to the displacement of gas by the pressure of the hand.
  • Fourteen to twenty days: The body surface is mottled red, green, and brown. Blisters appear over the body surface, and some areas of the epidermis may have slipped away. The nails and hair are loose and easily detached. The body is greatly swollen, and recognition of the features is difficult. Distension is most evident in those parts of the body where the tissues are loose - for example, the scrotum and breasts; the eyes bulge and the tongue swells to fill the mouth and protrudes beyond the teeth.
  • One to six months: The thoracic and abdominal cavities may be burst open by the pressure of the accumulated gases. The bones of the cranium may be separated, allowing the brain to escape. The soft parts are more or less absorbed. Recognition of the features is impossible. Determination of sex from the external features alone may be impossible.
  • (From The Principles and Practice of Embalming by Frederick and Strub)
Body of St. Teresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart

All in all, it's a good thing we're biodegradeable, as food for worms, mulch for daisies. Imagine billions of incorrupt corpses... countless preserved carcasses piling up in salt mines, gravel pits, Arctic waste. We'd quickly run out of real estate. Cemeteries would be forced to expand vertically, mausolea scraping the skies.

Americans are so unnaturally obsessed with leaving an eternally pretty corpse that the USA is the only country in the world that embalms its dead and holds open-casket funerals.

Can we attribute this to Pharaonic superstition? Compulsive repression of the reality of death by a culture that thrives on violent fantasy yet purchases its meat wrapped in cellophane? Simony — buying our way into immortality? Are we all trying to be big shots, as we ape the cadaverous high-fashion of Tutankhamen, Lenin, and the incorrupt saints? Or are we merely victims of the conventions and browbeating avarice of the funeral industry?

Jessica Mitford's muckraking American Way of Death lays bare the ghoulish greed of the death business. In a hilarious chapter, Mitford quotes from Forest Lawn literature that attempts to persuade the grieving from such unprofitable practices as taking home the cremation urn, or worse, scattering the ashes of the decedent:

  • In the past and in areas where protective legislation has not been enacted, receptacles containing cremated remains have sometimes been kept in homes and have been lost through fire [!], burglary, or other unforeseen occurrences, resulting in lasting remorse. Even more regrettable are the results of the practice known as "scattering.'' Recognizable fragments of the human frame that come hurtling out of the skies, wash ashore on beaches, or roll about underfoot in gardens and parks appall the strangers who encounter them and cause lifelong heartache to those who have had any share in such disposition of loved one's remains.

There is more threat than reverence implied in the preceding. Forest Lawn's message to the bereaved brings home to roost all the ancient fears and taboos implicit in the handling of the dead. Superstition is the undertaker's ace in the hole. Most Americans are of the conviction that stinting on a funeral brings bad luck, at the very least.

The specter of malignancy does not always attend the dead, especially in connection with the miraculous cases of saintly incorruption. In The Incorruptible Flesh, Piero Camporesi writes about the insatiable urge of the pious to gather religious relics:

  • Medieval fascination with the behavior of saintly bodies under post mortem sets the scene for a morbid and nightmarish drama of which their bones, flesh, and blood are the tormented protagonists, engaged in a long and restless iter which persisted, in some cases, across the ages. One catches glimpses of nocturnal life in convents, of macabre and spine-chilling operations more akin to butchery, of rudimentary dissections carried out with knives and razors by hands which, while devout, shook with inexperience.

One such dissection attended the body of Sister Chiara of Montefalco. It was decided by the Augustinian nuns that her virgin flesh should not be touched ''by any man whatsoever,” including the barber-surgeon (embalmer). A document dated 1663 describes the nuns’ blessed autopsy and their astonishing discovery:

  • The excess of blood was such that they did not at first see what was contained therein; they knew well enough that the heart is concave and divided into two parts, being a whole only in its circumference; then Sister Francesca felt with her finger that in the middle of one section there ran a nerve; and when she drew it out, they saw to their amazement that it was a cross, formed of flesh, which had been ensconsed in a cavity of the same shape as the cross. Upon seeing this, Sister Margarita began shouting, "A miracle, a miracle...."
  • It occurred to Sister Giovanna, after observing this phenomenon, that the heart might harbor other mysteries: so she told Sister Francesca to continue her inspection with greater attention.... And in so doing, she encountered another small nerve standing up in the heart, like the Cross; and studying it carefully, they realized that it represented the Whip, or Scourge, with which Christ was beaten at the pillar.

The amazing Sister Chiara is only one of many miracle corpses profiled in The Incorruptibles by Joan Carroll Cruz. "Destined to enlighten and convince,” reads the blurb on the back cover. Though freethinkers may argue that enlightenment does not always lead to conviction, Cruz's book is a stunning compilation of supernatural intervention in the reliquary.

Among the dozens of incorruptibles profiled are St. Rita of Cascia, "Saint of Impossible and Desperate Cases," whose corpse quite impossibly "shifted positions several times, plus the eyes have opened and closed unaided," and the "dwarfed, malformed body of Blessed Margaret of Metola," who was buried in 1320 and was discovered incorrupt after exhumation in 1558.

Cruz insists that these beatified and none-too-beautiful bodies

  • were never embalmed or treated in any manner, yet most were found lifelike, flexible, and sweetly scented many years after death, in sharp contrast to [accidentally or deliberately preserved bodies], who without exception were found stiff, discolored, and skeletal. The mystery of their preservation is further compounded by the observance of blood and clear oils - which have proceeded from a number of these holy relics — a phenomenon which again, needless to say, was never recorded with regard to the deliberately or accidentally preserved.

In the photographic documentation, the incorruptible saints appear more like the ghastly mummies of Guanajuato than the good-as-new, limber wonders Cruz insists they are. We were disappointing to learn that the fresh-looking cover-girl corpse of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes is only a figurine modeled in wax. It's fascinating and delightfully macabre reading just the same, especially when Ms. Cruz documents such miraculous occurrences as the curative corpse fluid of St. Charbel Makhlouf or the sweet "odor of sanctity" that accompanies the festering sores of saints bleeding in magnificent empathy with the ripped, gouged, and maimed Blessed Martyrs.

Miracles are not restricted to the immortal flesh. Joan Carroll Cruz's later book, Relics, reveals the stories behind hosts that defy gravity and turn into flesh, blood of saints preserved in glass vessels that go turbid or boil on holy days, pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary that weep, etc. Keep in mind that Cruz only writes about authenticated relics, ones that have their Vatican-chartered cults of veneration. These are no five-and-dime, Jesus-on-the-tortilla-variety apparitions.

As far as pious hoaxes are concerned, there are none better documented than that of a nun named Magdalena de la Cruz, who claimed to have stigmata, to have lived without food except for the Blessed Sacrament, and to have flown through the air during her ecstasies. According to Herbert Thurston's Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, Magdalena, whose favorite trick was the miraculous appearance of the host on her tongue during Communion, was caught filching hosts from the ciborium.

Thurston's book is the most remarkable compilation of high weirdness surrounding the Nazarene cult since the New Testament. Here we have exhaustive chapters on levitating priests, stigmatic ecstatics, telekinetic hosts, glow-in-the-dark saints, saints who cannot be lit on fire, saints who burn so much with divine love that their hands induce water to boil, sweet-smelling corpses of the faithful, beatified servants of Scripture whose corpses did not rigidify, blind mystics who could see, saints who could survive without food, and more.

Thurston, a Jesuit priest, accepts nearly all the phenomena as tokens of divine intervention, except for stigmatization, which he terms the "crucifixion complex":

  • Once it had been brought home to contemplatives that it was possible to be physically conformed to the sufferings of Christ by bearing His wound marks in hands, feet, and side, then the idea of this form of union with their Divine Master took shape in the minds of many. It became in fact a pious obsession; so much so that in a few exceptionally sensitive individuals the idea conceived in the mind was realised in the flesh.

Stigmata take the form of spontaneous wounds in the hands, feet, and side in empathy with the Passion of Christ. Edwards, Gabel, and Homer's article "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ" (first printed in the March 21, 1986 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association) quite plainly proves that those nailed to the cross must have been fastened through the wrist, not through the hand. (Nailing through the palm would not support the weight.) It would be interesting to see where future stigmatists, forewarned to the appropriate location of wound marks, will bleed.

The remarkable Therese Neumann, who became quite "Rubensesque" in later years, subsisted solely on the Eucharist and water for 36 years of her life, ending at her death in 1966. Neumann is renowned for bleeding copiously through her eyes during her "ecstasies," in which Christ appears to her in a scene out of the Passion. A scientific sampling of Therese's eye blood revealed the substance to be menstrual fluid.

Padre Pio, Therese Neumann's competitor for most famous stigmatist of the 20th Century, received his wounds via a celestial messenger:

While I was hearing a boy's confessions on the evening of the 5th, I was suddenly terrorized by the sight of a celestial person who presented himself to my mind's eye. He had in his hand a sort of weapon like a very long, sharp-pointed steel blade which seemed to emit fire. At the very instant that I saw all this, I saw that person hurl the weapon into my soul with all his might. I cried out with difficulty and felt I was dying. I asked the boy to leave because I felt ill and no longer had the strength to continue. This agony lasted uninterruptedly until the morning of the 7th. I cannot tell you how much I suffered during this period of anguish. Even my entrails were torn and ruptured by the weapon, and nothing was spared. From that day on I have been mortally wounded. I feel in the depths of my soul a wound that is always open and which causes me continual agony. (From They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata, by Michael Freze)

The Padre spent many nights in physical battle with the agents of Satan:

  • The devil won't admit defeat. He has appeared in almost every form. For the past few days he has paid me visits along with some of his satellites armed with clubs and iron weapons and, what is worse, in their own form as devils. I cannot tell you how many times he has thrown me out of bed and dragged me around the room.

Padre Pio rates up near the top in the sweepstakes of suffering, yet St. Lydwine of Schiedam, who took on all forms of human disease, seems the most afflicted victim soul of the past millennium. To her everlasting credit, St. Lydwine experienced the following medical crises: gallstones the size of eggs, decayed lungs and liver,''plague' (with one bubo appearing on her anus and the other near the heart), worms, skin tumors, ergotism, neuralgia, stomach cancer, blindness, severe toothaches, and, of course, stigmata. It is not known whether St. Lydwine ever contracted the common cold. But of course, only a true soldier of the Cross could have been blessed by such divine agony!

Lyall Watson, an admitted agnostic on the question of the supernatural, is given to believe that stigmata and related miraculous phenomena are a trick of the mind: "I have seen a fakir in Madras make the hands of a member of the audience bleed by hypnosis; and Stephen Black has a patient who was able to produce an appropriate puncture mark and swelling, when simply reminded of an injection given 20 years previously," reports Lyall Watson in The Romeo Error, making all the Christian hocus-pocus seem like a trick of the mind. And, perhaps, an ecumenical trick of faith.

It may be disconcerting for Catholics to note that the most substantiated case of contemporary bodily incorruption comes from the death of the Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. In a detailed, three-page, notarized letter to the Self-Realization Fellowship, dated May 16, 1952, Harry T. Rowe, Mortuary Director of Forest Lawn, describes an "unparalleled" case of immutability of the flesh: "No physical disintegration was visible in Paramahansa Yogananda's body even 20 days after death."

In search of further answers on blood miracles and flesh that refuses to decay, I exit the 405 freeway at San Fernando Mission Boulevard and park at the holiest shrine the San Fernando Valley can offer. Strutting inside the mission's grounds are a gaggle of noisy hens, leaf-blowing Mexican gardeners, field-tripping schoolchildren, and Flannery O'Connor peacocks. Within the archives building, I hit pay dirt.

The Monsignor in charge, Francis J. Weber, a confident, physically expansive man with a lazy eye, toiled eight long years as a student of mortuary science. He's rather skeptical of incorruption as a divine phenomenon. "When you work in a mortuary, as I did, you see all sorts of — well, I have exhumed dozens of people, and all have had differing rates of decomposition.” Monsignor Weber describes what occurred to a Chinese princess who died during the war and was stuck for some time in a receiving vault. He, along with others, was sent to oil her skin, and strangely enough, her body looked moist and perfectly preserved. Incorruptibility of the body is not a precondition for determination of sainthood, cautions the Monsignor. "Some of the greatest saints have decomposed."

The Monsignor's skepticism (cynicism?) is a bit unnerving. Didn't the Vatican authenticate many cases of incorruptibility listed in Joan Cruz's study?

"Well," reasons Monsignor Weber, "many of these cases could have been of preternatural origin."

Preternatural?

"Well, you have natural causes, then you have supernatural cause, which is of divine origin. Then you have the preternatural cause, which is not of divine origin but cannot be explained by science either."

Asked whether he believes in the miraculous, the Monsignor hedges his bets and discusses the supporting evidence that must accompany miracles for Vatican approval. "The Church says a pious aberration is not impossible, that it just may be possible. It is sometimes better to encourage faith by looking the other way when a false relic is venerated than destroying faith by making a fast pronouncement." As for himself, the Monsignor remembers an incident when he was called on to relocate the figure of a saint to a "less conspicuous" shrine. As he was moving the wax figure out the sacristy door, scaffolding fell, almost killing him. The Monsignor believes that he was protected by the saint. "But how are you going to prove it? It's a personal, subjective experience.

"Right now there's very little emphasis on relics," relates Monsignor Weber. "We're more into scripture and doctrine these days. Relics are tangential to faith."

Relics are nevertheless displayed at the mission's archives behind glass cases. Among the historico-religious bric-a-brac, which includes an autographed baseball from the Los Angeles Dodgers, were bits of the Apostles enclosed in lovely jeweled cases.

"You can still get relics in Europe," says Monsignor Weber.

You mean you can buy bones of the saints?

"Buy? Don't ever say buy!" thunders the Monsignor. "You make an offering.”

— Adam Parfrey

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The nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches long. - Image by Sarita Vendetta
The nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches long.

This Sickness Is Not Unto Death

Above the doorbell on Floyd Fedance's olive-green house in El Cajon is a sign that reads, "It takes both rain and sunshine to make a rainbow." When he opens the door he is smiling, bright-eyed. Floyd, now in his early 60s, is terminally ill with lymphoma. A retired house painter, he lives alone. His four sons are scattered throughout Southern California. One or another visits him weekly. His house is simply decorated with a feminine touch — vestiges of his wife, dead 11 years.

Fred Fedance: "We are all going to die. You don't choose the time."

Somewhere in the house a cuckoo clock chimes. We sit in his den in the grey shadows of a gloomy afternoon, without lights. Floyd settles in a big easy chair near a table with a Lifeline machine on it, crosses spindly arms over his round stomach. There's a small depression on his forehead where they've implanted a reservoir under the skin for chemotherapy. Across the room is a huge Mitsubishi TV, which Floyd doesn't often watch. On the wall behind his head is a glazed ceramic crucifix. Floyd was raised Catholic and has never left the faith. He's getting around pretty well these days: walks down the block, drives out for a quart of milk, does little fix-it projects around the house. He is not a person who "tries to pack in as much living in one day as he can."

Connie and Sabrina Cruellar. "It's difficult for doctors to deal with me."

Floyd had part of a cancerous lung removed in 1987. In early '89, he began experiencing high fevers around the clock. "I was terribly, terribly sick." He went to his doctor and said, "I am dying and I don't know why." Eventually, lymphoma was diagnosed.

He was in and out of the hospital, drifted in and out of lucidity. "There are weeks I have lost. I have tried to piece it together, but I can't. It is lost time, and you don't know where it went or how it went." He wasn't supposed to make it through Christmas - he heard the doctors tell his sons that. Three or four times Floyd has been near death, but he was unconscious through these experiences.

He remembers lying in the hospital, half-awake, once, with his sons there. He heard them discussing his condition with a doctor on the other side of his bed. It was a very particular moment, one connected in his mind with hearing himself discussed in the third person. "That's when I realized I was dying. There was no regret or anger or fear."

Floyd does not, he says, think much about death. "We are all going to die. You don't choose the time. We don't have a guarantee. None of us do."

"After they crucified Jesus, on the third day, he rose to Heaven. That's the Resurrection. We all go up to Heaven after the third day." Floyd visualizes Heaven as a beautiful place where he will see all his family together. His parents, his wife, the baby sister his parents lost when he was a young boy. "But I have no way of knowing. None of us do. I don't take any stock in crystal-ball gazers or any of that sort of thing. People don't come back and say what it's like. Who can answer those questions except myself for myself?"

ln Floyd's mind, his life has not changed that much since he became ill. "I do the same things I used to, but less well," he says. Then he considers, gazing out the window. "I guess I love people more. Tb know what a human being is and to know how precious a human life is. There are so many nice people, there really are. I strive to be nice to people. We can't live in a shell. We aren't the only ones who have problems. God gives us all our crosses to bear. What makes life so beautiful is knowing you have friends." Immortality, for Floyd, is living on in the love people have for you, living on in their memories.

At night Floyd listens to the news, perhaps watches a movie. Then he is exhausted. "I pray a Rosary, say good night to the Blessed Mother. After that, if I have any thoughts, they are of her." He sleeps. Sometimes he dreams. "I don't have dreams that are scary anymore. My dreams carry me to different places to see different people. They are very nice dreams."

When Connie Crueller's daughter Sabrina was four months old, a malignant tumor was discovered in the infant's brain. Surgeons managed to remove a third of it. Although she spent her youth in a convent in Cuba, Connie was not religious. The weekend of the surgery, Connie was "hurting so much I wished I could just open my chest and take out the pain. It was really horrible. Sabrina was just lying there like a piece of meat — You're listening, aren't you, my baby?"

As she says this, Connie, lying on a hospital bed next to Sabrina, reaches out to stroke her daughter's thin, dark hair. Sabrina is now 21 but looks 16. Her head is craned at an awkward angle; every few minutes Connie readjusts a ruffled and embroidered pillow underneath it. Her daughter's round brown eyes stare straight ahead. Long, dark lashes blink over them regularly. Her hands are bent on her wrists and curled up, like a praying mantis. Sometimes she sighs thickly, and, under the blue bedclothes, thin legs twitch.

"She can't respond, but I know the words are dancing around in her head." Connie draws her fingertips over her daughter's forehead in a tickling gesture.

"When the doctors told me she didn't have long to live, a tiny voice in the back of my head was saying, 'No, she's not going to die.' Then all the horrible pain I had been feeling went away. It was just gone." Connie describes herself as a "foxhole Christian" — she came to her faith out of her fear of death.

Connie began to frequent churches, seeking her daughter's healing. She studied the Bible. "I was truly born again. Coming from Cuba, I didn't even know that phrase was a cliche when I felt it. trees looked greener. Everything came into sharper focus. It was as if my brain exploded." As Connie grew in her faith and developed what she calls a relationship with Jesus, the idea of Sabrina's healing receded into the background. "It was then," she says, "that Sabrina started healing."

Years passed. Sabrina walked, she talked. "She was a real chatterbox." Between the ages of 3 and 16, Sabrina functioned well. She began to deteriorate again in her 16th year. Her seizures — random brain activity she could not control — became more frequent. Out of the calcified mass of her old brain tumor, a new tumor formed. Chemotherapy and radiation, Connie says, only worsened the girl's condition. Connie discontinued these treatments.

Over the years, Sabrina has often been close to death. Connie thought about death a lot a ose times. She sees those thoughts as little dips in her faith, moments of doubt. She lays her cheek against her daughter's, runs a hand over the girl's hair. "But I never really believed Sabrina would die," Connie says.

"With all our human limitations, how could we really know who God is? How can we itty-bitty, arrogant, miserable little human beings comprehend God? Imagine the way the human eye works, the intricacy, and that's just one small part of a human being. Think of the ecology of the earth. It runs like clockwork, perfectly balanced -a change of just one small degree and it would go 'kaput.' And it's just the tiniest part of the universe."

When your faith is so strong, Connie says, when you believe in resurrection, death loses its sting. "When my mother died, I felt none of that devastation you feel when someone you love dies. Because the way I look at death is, of course I missed her, but she just moved from this house into another house."

Last year, Sabrina was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctors told Connie it would be three weeks before the girl could possibly be well enough to leave. After the first day, her fever broke. After the second day, she was off the respirator. On the third day, she was released from the hospital.

"It's difficult for doctors to deal with me," she says. "They try to say things to shock you into reality. But they get no reaction from me My reality is different from theirs."

The doctors say there is a tumor in Sabrina's brain. Only a small mass shows up on CAT scans. "They say what is causing all these problems is that the tumor has infiltrated into the other regions of the brain, and they cannot see it. The way I see it, the tumor is not there at all," Connie says. She pulls back a little to address Sabrina's face. "Hmmnn? The tumor is not there at all."

"And we are going to see her regenerate. And I ask her sometimes in the morning, 'Is today the day, Sabrina? Is today the day?' " □

— Mary Lang

Respiration during crucifixion (left); exhalation (right)

The Physical Death Of Jesus Christ

Roman and Jewish Trials

Soon after midnight, Jesus was arrested at Gethsemane by the temple officials and was taken first to Annas and then to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest for that year. Between 1 a.m. and daybreak, Jesus was tried before Caiaphas and the political Sanhedrin and was found guilty of blasphemy. The guards then blindfolded Jesus, spat on him, and struck him in the face with their fists. Soon after daybreak, presumably at the temple, Jesus was tried before the religious Sanhedrin (with the Pharisees and the Sadducees) and again was found guilty of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

Exhalation

Since permission for an execution had to come from the governing Romans, Jesus was taken early in the morning by the temple officials to the Praetorium of the Fortress of Antonia, the residence and governmental seat of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea. However, Jesus was presented to Pilate not as a blasphemer but rather as a self-appointed king who would undermine the Roman authority. Pilate made no charges against Jesus and sent him to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Judea. Herod likewise made no official charges and then returned Jesus to Pilate. Again, Pilate could find no basis for a legal charge against Jesus, but the people persistently demanded crucifixion. Pilate finally granted their demand and handed over Jesus to be flogged (scourged) and crucified.

Nailing of feet

Health of Jesus

The rigors of Jesus' ministry (that is, traveling by foot throughout Palestine) would have precluded any major physical illness or a weak general constitution. Accordingly, it is reasonable to assume that Jesus was in good physical condition before his walk to Gethsemane. However, during the 12 hours between 9 p.m. Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday, he had suffered great emotional stress as evidenced by hematidrosis, abandonment by his closest friends (the disciples), and a physical beating (after the first Jewish trial). Also, in the setting of a traumatic and sleepless night, he had been forced to walk more than 2.5 miles to and from the sites of the various trials. These physical and emotional factors may have rendered Jesus particularly vulnerable to the adverse hemodynamic effects of the scourging.

Carrying crossbar

Scourging

Flogging was a legal preliminary to every Roman execution, and only women and Roman senators or soldiers (except in cases of desertion) were exempt. The usual instrument was a short whip (flagrum or flagellum) with several single or braided leather thongs of variable lengths, in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals. Occasionally, staves also were used. For scourging, the man was stripped of his clothing, and his hands were tied to an upright post. The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers (lictors) or by one who alternated positions. The severity of the scourging depended on the disposition of the lictors and was intended to weaken the victim to a state just short of collapse or death. After the scourging, the soldiers often taunted their victim.

Medical Aspects of Scourging

As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim's back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions, and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued, the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. The extent of blood loss may well have determined how long the victim would survive on the cross.

Scourging of Jesus

At the Praetorium, Jesus was severely whipped.

(Although the severity of the scourging is not discussed in the four gospel accounts, it is implied in one of the epistles [1 Peter 2:24]. A detailed word study of the ancient Greek text for this verse indicates that the scourging of Jesus was particularly harsh.) It is not known whether the number of lashes was limited to 39, in accordance with Jewish law. The Roman soldiers, amused that this weakened man had claimed to be a king, began to mock him by placing a robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns on his head, and a wooden staff as a scepter in his right hand. Next, they spat on Jesus and struck him on the head with the wooden staff. Moreover, when the soldiers tore the robe from Jesus' back, they probably reopened the scourging wounds.

The severe scourging, with its intense pain and appreciable blood loss, most probably left Jesus in a preshock state. Moreover, hematidrosis had rendered his skin particularly tender. The physical and mental abuse meted out by the Jews and the Romans, as well as the lack of food, water, and sleep, also contributed to his generally weakened state. Therefore, even before the actual crucifixion, Jesus' physical condition was at least serious and possibly critical.

Crucifixion

Crucifixion probably first began among the Persians. Alexander the Great introduced the practice to Egypt and Carthage, and the Romans appear to have learned of it from the Carthaginians. Although the Romans did not invent crucifixion, they perfected it as a form of torture and capital punishment that was designed to produce a slow death with maximum pain and suffering. It was one of the most disgraceful and cruel methods of execution and usually was reserved only for slaves, foreigners, revolutionaries, and the vilest of criminals. Roman law usually protected Roman citizens from crucifixion, except perhaps in the case of desertion by soldiers.

In its earliest form in Persia, the victim was either tied to a tree or was tied to or impaled on an upright post, usually to keep the guilty victim's feet from touching holy ground. Only later was a true cross used; it was characterized by an upright post (stipes) and a horizontal crossbar (patibulum), and it had several variations. Although archeological and historical evidence strongly indicates that the low Tau cross was preferred by the Romans in Palestine at the time of Christ, crucifixion practices often varied in a given geographical region and in accordance with the imagination of the executioners, and the Latin cross and other forms also may have been used.

It was customary for the condemned man to carry his own cross from the flogging post to the site of crucifixion outside the city walls. He was usually naked, unless this was prohibited by local customs. Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lbs., only the crossbar was carried. The patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lbs., was placed across the nape of the victim's neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms then were tied to the crossbar. The processional to the site of crucifixion was led by a complete Roman military guard, headed by a centurion. One of the soldiers carried a sign (titulus) on which the condemned man's name and crime were displayed. Later, the titulus would be attached to the top of the cross. The Roman guard would not leave the victim until they were sure of his death.

Outside the city walls was permanently located the heavy upright wooden stipes, on which the patibulum would be secured. In the case of the Tau cross, this was accomplished by means of a mortise and tenon joint, with or without reinforcement by ropes. Tb prolong the crucifixion process, a horizontal wooden block or plank, serving as a crude seat (sedile or sedulum), often was attached midway down the stipes. Only very rarely, and probably later than the time of Christ, was an additional block (suppedaneum) employed for transfixion of the feet.

At the site of execution, by law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) as a mild analgesic. The criminal was then thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the patibulum. The hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing apparently was preferred by the Romans. The archeological remains of a crucified body, found in an ossuary near Jerusalem and dating from the time of Christ, indicate that the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 inches long with a square shaft 3/8 inch across. Furthermore, ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin have documented that the nails commonly were driven through the wrists rather than the palms.

After both arms were fixed to the crossbar, the patibulum and the victim, together, were lifted onto the stipes. On the low cross, four soldiers could accomplish this relatively easily. However, on the tall cross, the soldiers used either wooden forks or ladders.

Next, the feet were fixed to the cross, either by nails or ropes. Ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin suggest that nailing was the preferred Roman practice. Although the feet could be fixed to the sides of the stipes or to a wooden footrest (suppedaneum), they usually were nailed directly to the front of the stipes. To accomplish this, flexion of the knees may have been quite prominent, and the bent legs may have been rotated laterally.

When the nailing was completed, the titulus was attached to the cross, by nails or cords, just above the victim's head. The soldiers and the civilian crowd often taunted and jeered the condemned man, and the soldiers customarily divided up his clothes among themselves. The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days and appears to have been inversely related to the severity of the scourging. However, even if the scourging had been relatively mild, the Roman soldiers could hasten death by breaking the legs below the knees (crurifragium or skelokopia).

Not uncommonly, insects would light upon or burrow into the open wounds or the eyes, ears, and nose of the dying and helpless victim, and birds of prey would tear at these sites. Moreover, it was customary to leave the corpse on the cross to be devoured by predatory animals. However, by Roman law, the family of the condemned could take the body for burial, after obtaining permission from the Roman judge.

Since no one was intended to survive crucifixion, the body was not released to the family until the soldiers were sure the victim was dead. By custom, one of the Roman guards would pierce the body with a sword or lance. Traditionally, this had been considered a spear wound to the heart through the right side of the chest — a fatal wound probably taught to most Roman soldiers. The Shroud of Turin documents this form of injury. Moreover, the standard infantry spear, which was 5 to 6 ft. long, could easily have reached the chest of a man crucified on the customary low cross.

Medical Aspects of Crucifixion

With a knowledge of both anatomy and ancient crucifixion practices, one may reconstruct the probable medical aspects of this form of slow execution. Each wound apparently was intended to produce intense agony, and the contributing causes of death were numerous.

The scourging prior to execution served to weaken the condemned man and, if blood loss was considerable, to produce orthostatic hypotension and even hypovolemic shock. When the victim was thrown to the ground on his back, in preparation for transfixion of the hands, his scourging wounds most likely would become tom open again and contaminated with dirt. Furthermore, with each respiration, the painful scourging wounds would be scraped against the rough wood of the stipes. As a result, blood loss from the back probably would continue throughout the crucifixion ordeal.

With arms outstretched but not taut, the wrists were nailed to the patibulum. It has been shown that the ligaments and bones of the wrist can support the weight of a body hanging from them, but the palms cannot. Accordingly, the iron spikes probably were driven between the radius and the carpals or between the two rows of carpal bones, either proximal to or through the strong bandlike flexor retinaculum and the various intercarpal ligaments. Although a nail in either location in the wrist might pass between the bony elements and thereby produce no fractures, the likelihood of painful periosteal injury would seem great. Furthermore, the driven nail would crush or sever the rather large sensorimotor median nerve. The stimulated nerve would produce excruciating bolts of fiery pain in both arms. Although the severed median nerve would result in paralysis of a portion of the hand, ischemic contractures and impalement of various ligaments by the iron spike might produce a clawlike grasp.

Most commonly, the feet were fixed to the front of the stipes by means of an iron spike driven through the first or second intermetatarsal space, just distal to the tarsometatarsal joint. It is likely that the deep peroneal nerve and branches of the medial and lateral plantar nerves would have been injured by the nails. Although scourging may have resulted in considerable blood loss, crucifixion per se was a relatively bloodless procedure, since no major arteries, other than perhaps the deep plantar arch, pass through the favored anatomic sites of transfixion.

The major pathophysiologic effect of crucifixion, beyond the excruciating pain, was a marked interference with normal respiration, particularly exhalation. The weight of the body, pulling down on the outstretched arms and shoulders, would tend to fix the intercostal muscles in an inhalation state and thereby hinder passive exhalation. Accordingly, exhalation was primarily diaphragmatic, and breathing was shallow. It is likely that this form of respiration would not suffice and that hyper-carbia would soon result. The onset of muscle cramps or tetanic contractions, due to fatigue and hypercarbia, would hinder respiration even further.

Adequate exhalation required lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows and adducting the shoulders. However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. Lifting of the body would also painfully scrape the scourged back against the rough wooden stipes. Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to the discomfort. As a result, each respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and lead eventually to asphyxia.

The actual cause of death by crucifixion was multifactorial and varied somewhat with each case, but the two most prominent causes probably were hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia. Other possible contributing factors included dehydration, stress-induced arrhythmias, and congestive heart failure with the rapid accumulation of pericardial and perhaps pleural effusions. Crucifracture (breaking the legs below the knees), if performed, led to asphyxic death within minutes. Death by crucifixion was, in every sense of the word, excruciating (Latin, excruciatus, or "out of the cross").

Crucifixion of Jesus

After the scourging and the mocking, at about 9 a.m., the Roman soldiers put Jesus' clothes back on him and then led him and two thieves to be crucified. Jesus apparently was so weakened by the severe flogging that he could not carry the patibulum from the Praetorium to the site of crucifixion one-third of a mile away. Simon of Cyrene was summoned to carry Christ's cross, and the processional then made its way to Golgotha (or Calvary), an established crucifixion site.

Here, Jesus' clothes, except for a linen loincloth, again were removed, thereby probably reopening the scourging wounds. He then was offered a drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) but, after tasting it, refused the drink. Finally, Jesus and the two thieves were crucified. Although scriptural references are made to nails in the hands, these are not at odds with the archeological evidence of wrist wounds, since the ancients customarily considered the wrist to be a part of the hand. The titulus was attached above Jesus' head. It is unclear whether Jesus was crucified on the Tau cross or the Latin cross; archeological findings favor the former and early tradition the latter. The fact that Jesus later was offered a drink of wine vinegar from a sponge placed on the stalk of the hyssop plant strongly supports the belief that Jesus was crucified on the short cross.

The soldiers and the civilian crowd taunted Jesus throughout the crucifixion ordeal, and the soldiers cast lots for his clothing. Christ spoke seven times from the cross. Since speech occurs during exhalation, these short, terse utterances must have been particularly difficult and painful. At about 3 p.m. that Friday, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, bowed his head, and died. The Roman soldiers and onlookers recognized his moment of death.

Since the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the crosses after sunset, the beginning of the Sabbath, they asked Pontius Pilate to order crucifracture to hasten the deaths of the three crucified men. The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Rather, one of the soldiers pierced his side, probably with an infantry spear, and produced a sudden flow of blood and water. Later that day, Jesus' body was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb.

Death of Jesus

Two aspects of Jesus' death have been the source of great controversy, namely, the nature of the wound in his side and the cause of his death after only several hours on the cross.

The Gospel of John describes the piercing of Jesus' side and emphasizes the sudden flow of blood and water. Some authors have interpreted the flow of water to be ascites or urine, from an abdominal midline perforation of the bladder. However, the Greek word used by John clearly denoted laterality and often implied the ribs. Therefore, it seems probable that the wound was in the thorax and well away from the abdominal midline.

It remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure.

Although the side of the wound was not designated by John, it traditionally has been depicted on the right side. Supporting this tradition is the fact that a large flow of blood would be more likely with a perforation of the distended and thin-walled right atrium or ventricle than the thick-walled and contracted left ventricle. Although the side of the wound may never be established with certainty, the right seems more probable than the left.

Some of the skepticism in accepting John's description has arisen from the difficulty in explaining, with medical accuracy, the flow of both blood and water. Part of this difficulty has been based on the assumption that the blood appeared first, then the water. However, in the ancient Greek, the order of words generally denoted prominence and not necessarily a time sequence. Therefore, it seems likely that John was emphasizing the prominence of blood rather than its appearance preceding the water.

Therefore, the water probably represented serous pleural and pericardial fluid and would have preceded the flow of blood and been smaller in volume than the blood. Perhaps in the setting of hypovolemia and impending acute heart failure, pleural and pericardial effusions may have developed and would have added to the volume of apparent water. The blood, in contrast, may have originated from the right atrium or the right ventricle or perhaps from a hemopericardium.

Jesus' death after only three to six hours on the cross surprised even Pontius Pilate. The fact that Jesus cried out in a loud voice and then bowed his head and died suggests the possibility of a catastrophical terminal event. One popular explanation has been that Jesus died of cardiac rupture. In the setting of the scourging and crucifixion, with associated hypovolemia, hypoxemia, and perhaps an altered coagulable state, friable noninfective thrombotic vegetations could have formed on the aortic or mitral valve. These then could have dislodged and embolized into the coronary circulation and thereby produced an acute transmural myocardial infarction. Thrombotic valvular vegetations have been reported to develop under analogous acute traumatic conditions. Rupture of the left ventricle free wall may occur, though uncommonly, in the first few hours following infarction.

However, another explanation may be more likely. Jesus' death may have been hastened simply by his state of exhaustion and by the severity of the scourging, with its resultant blood loss and preshock state. The fact that he could not carry his patibulum supports this interpretation. The actual cause of Jesus' death, like that of other crucified victims, may have been multifactorial and related primarily to hypovolemic shock, exhaustion, asphyxia, and perhaps acute heart failure. A fatal cardiac arrhythmia may have accounted for the apparent catastrophic terminal event.

Thus, it remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure. However, the important feature may be not how he died but rather whether he died. Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge. □

(This article, originally titled "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," by William E. Edwards, MD; Wesley J. Gabel, MDiv; and Floyd Hosmer, MS, AMI, is reprinted by permission of the Mayo Foundation.)

I could not elicit that promise

Strange child I suppose I was. It was infinitely more amazing and mysterious to me that Lazarus had been raised from the dead than that Jesus rose from that same place. In my mind, Jesus' rising was the essence of His business, but Lazarus was like us and his rising, therefore, more miraculous.

The nature of faith. By assigning a "rising and resurrecting — that's your job" status to Jesus, I was accepting Him as Savior. Or accepting anyway the faith of my parents, who swore to His validity. It is the presence of Jesus Christ and the acceptance of His resurrection that is all-consuming and upon which the foundation of all of Christian faith is built.

The "death not be the end to all things" and the symbols of renewal and regeneration were the business of Jesus. "This sickness is not unto death," He said, when informed of Lazarus's dying. The proof that it not be unto death lies not in Lazarus being called forth from the grave but in Jesus being there in order to call him forth. Christian existentialist Kierkegaard wrote:

No, it is not because Lazarus was awakened from the dead — not for this can one say this sickness is not unto death; but because He lives, therefore this sickness is not unto death.... Christianly understood death is by no means the last thing of all; hence, it is only a little event within that which is all, an eternal life.

I believe in this "the resurrection and the life." Still, whatever was the eternal component in death, it was not visible from this world. When someone died, they were placed into the ground and never seen again — never to be touched or heard. Yet, how was it Lazarus rose? It had to be Jesus raising people from the dead, for we could not rise on our own accord. Lazarus rose. This was a matter of some interest to me.

It came to me suddenly one day: Daddy's old. And then, He's so old he's gonna die soon.

I was outside, leaning over the back fence, watching Butch and his little sister climbing up and sliding down the big hill of sand they had in their back yard. They were yelling at me, "You can't play with us." But I knew that. I wasn't allowed to play with Butch because my parents said he was bad, and preachers' children don't play with bad children. I watched Butch and his sister. I envied them their hill of sand. This was Gary, Indiana, and there were lots of hills of sand but none as close to me or as monstrous looking as the one in Butch's back yard. Of course, since I could never play on it, it might as well have been as far away as the Indiana Sand Dunes.

Butch and his sister squealed with pleasure. I watched. Then suddenly it hit me: Daddy was old and he was going to die soon. I don't know where the thought came from or why it came at that particular moment. All I know is that I jumped down from my perch on the fence and ran into the house, where I collapsed into a quiet corner and began to weep hysterically. I prayed to God, begging him to not let my father die, to save my daddy, to save my daddy, because I didn't know how I could live without my daddy. I prayed and prayed and thought I would die from the grief and the breaking in my heart. But just as suddenly as my fears had erupted, they vanished, and I went on back to my perch watching Butch.

Soon after that, my father was transferred to another church, and we all moved back to Chicago. I never had another "attack," but the memory of that unexplained grieving stayed with me, and I knew it would be something I would never forget. Forget? I became obsessed with it. I felt my horror and my sadness. I felt my fear and loneliness. I did not weep or pray but increasingly became outraged and filled with anger. I knew God would kill my daddy, and I felt helpless to stop Him. The more I felt my fear and my pending abandonment, the angrier I got. The angrier I got, the more I wanted to meet this God personally and tell Him exactly what I thought about His death, the death He would destroy my father with. Finally, I determined that I would meet God, and I would do battle with Him, and I would demand that He save my daddy. I would demand that. I would insist.

The half bottle of aspirin that I took failed to do what I thought it would do. I did not meet God. I could not do battle with Him. Nothing, nothing happened. I was deeply disappointed, of course, but I dealt with my disappointment by denying that any God existed in the first place. Since I could not go to Him, He must not be. Did He not hear my call? Did He not hear my insistence on doing battle with Him? He must not exist.

This needs to be explained, perhaps. I was 11 years old and I was furious at God, this loving God, who would take my daddy and kill him to death, leaving me without the one person that I thought I could count on to love me. I could not count on my mother, for I believed that I was not her preference and that it was my brothers she preferred. Even if I had no brothers, I believe she would not have preferred me because I was never the sort of dainty, fragile, pretty daughter I imagined she had dreamed of. I depended on my father's love, and the idea of his death was unbearable. I knew that he was old. He was 30 years older than my mother. He was older than my grandmother, older than my grandfather. His end was near.

I would do battle with God. It did not occur to me that in dying to meet God, I would end and that there would be no return for me. I thought that I could go to God and fight and still return to live my life with my daddy. It was a child's logic. It was a child's determination to so save the life of her father that though the death of others was final and real, her own death was unimaginable.

I would go and come back. God's ass would be mine.

My inability to meet Him convinced me of His nonexistence. I scorned this God in whom my father put so much of his faith. In my mind, I spit on Him. He was not worthy of my attention. And because I could no longer believe in this God, I could feel also my withdrawal from my father, who was so full of belief that on Sunday mornings he cried out, "My God, my God," as he danced back and forth across the pulpit. His God. Let him be then welcome to his God; I wanted no part of Him.

Insanity? If I had not so fervently believed, I could not have lost my faith so completely.

Lazarus of Bethany, brother of Mary and Martha, was raised from the dead by Jesus after having lain in the grave for four days.

This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby.

For four days Lazarus had lain in the grave. "Lord, by this time he stinketh," said Martha.

I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?

The stone was removed from the grave of Lazarus, and Jesus cried out for Lazarus to come forth. Lazarus, who was dead and bound hand and foot with graveclothes, his face bound about with a napkin, then did come forth. This, according to John, was the beginning of the ultimate end to Christ's final destiny... a destiny He predicted would happen should He raise Lazarus from the dead. What He had done for Lazarus spread throughout the land, and the Pharisees were sorely upset.

Perhaps all I ever wanted was a promise that He do for my daddy what He had done for Lazarus.

Lazarus was raised from the dead, and from beneath the stone he stood and walked the land once more, stinking in his burial clothes. For four days and nights he had lain in his grave. An absence and then yet a presence in the world. Lazarus, come forth. He walked home to where he lived with Martha and Mary and there continued on about his business, a man who had once been dead and yet had risen.

No one asked Lazarus anything — whether he wanted to rise again to live once more in order to die another time, never to be raised. No one asked what it was he saw while dead or where, if anywhere, he went while in death. Lazarus, come forth "that the Son of God be glorified thereby."

When Jesus rose from the dead, the people around Him were troubled and imagined that they had seen a spirit. Jesus showed them His hands and His feet, where the nails had been driven, and sat with them, eating a piece of broiled fish and of a honeycomb until they believed. Still, Thomas, some distance away when told of this miracle, said that this was impossible to believe, and unless he could put his own finger into where the nails had been and thrust his hand into his side, he wouldn't believe. When Thomas did thrust his hand into the side of Jesus, then he believed.

Yet Thomas was with Jesus when Lazarus was raised. We have no record of his demanding to touch Lazarus in order to be convinced.

Lazarus, what say ye?

Kierkegaard says we don't need to know anything about Lazarus. Lazarus rising is incidental. Meaning is contained in Jesus' presence, and it is in the actuality of His being that says this sickness is not unto death. It is in the Resurrection of Jesus that lies the proof that this sickness is not unto death. Jesus lives, and that is the reason and the answer for Christian hope. He who was once dead now lives.

It was not because that 11-year-old child that I was could not die and go to meet God that I lost faith. It was because God would not be resurrected and face my accusations of His betrayal. He would not come alive, and in that refusal, I embraced the impossibility of His existence.

Too, in spite of this Christian faith in the Resurrection of Jesus, what is it we hold onto in this life? The lives of our loved ones. Why was Lazarus considered so incidental and unimportant? I prayed for the Lazarus in my daddy to come true. It is life we desire. That Lazarus lived and was raised from the dead promised a hope that my daddy could also be saved.

I could not elicit that promise.

What say ye, Lazarus? What say ye?

Was your faith made stronger because you were called forth from the dead? Was this an act of so little meaning for you?

But Lazarus either could not or would not report. He stumbled around, following after Jesus like so many others. "I don't recall a thing I saw while dead. I don't recall a thing I did while dead. It was a long sleeping."

Did you see heaven, Lazarus? "No, I don't believe I did."

His being raised from the dead was for the glory of Jesus, so that others might see and believe in the Resurrection. I pleaded for my daddy's immortality. I believed in my own sickness not being unto death. I thought the answer God gave me from His absence and His being unavailable to me was that the sickness was unto death, and from death there can be no returning... not of God, not of my daddy, and — should I have died — not of me. Had I been lied to and there can be no Lazarus?

God's concealing and revealing. In death the concealment. In the Resurrection, the revelation. But I could see only the concealment, and the revelation never came.

The burial cloths were taken off the body of Lazarus and put aside for later use. He went home, ate dinner, and went to sleep, ending this spectacular day. No one asked him anything, and he, after all, had nothing to say.

My daddy would not be Lazarus. His death would be always. My death would be always. I grieved for us all. Jesus, resurrected or not, kept silent. The things of this world were apparently not His concern.

— M. Corinne Mackey

"Sister Francesca felt with her finger that in the middle of one section there ran a nerve."

The Incorruptible Flesh

A magazine advertisement illustrates a young widow looking up to a stormy sky with concern that her loved one might be ravaged by the putrefying dampness. "There's deep consolation," coos the ad copy, "for those who know the casket of a dear one is protected against water in the ground by a Clark Metal Grave Vault."

That may be little consolation to the departed, who swiftly rots in his airtight casket due to the aggressive presence of anaerobic bacteria - the airless variety that usually thrives in the human digestive tract. The little organisms that aided your digestion of that delicious milk-fed veal will eventually aid in digesting you.

  • Chronological order of putrefaction:
  • One to three days: Greenish discoloration of the abdominal wall. Odor of putrefaction is noticeable. The eyeballs become soft.
  • Three to five days: Green discoloration is general over abdomen and genitals. Irregular green patches appear over back of neck, chest, and lower extremities.
  • A bloody, frothy purge may pour from the mouth.
  • Eight to ten days: The green discoloration is general over the body. The color is gradually becoming red, due to the pressure of decomposed blood. The abdomen is distended with gas. The corneas have collapsed. The fatty tissue beneath the skin is infiltrated with gas and, on touching it, imparts to the hand a characteristic sensation called "crepitation," due to the displacement of gas by the pressure of the hand.
  • Fourteen to twenty days: The body surface is mottled red, green, and brown. Blisters appear over the body surface, and some areas of the epidermis may have slipped away. The nails and hair are loose and easily detached. The body is greatly swollen, and recognition of the features is difficult. Distension is most evident in those parts of the body where the tissues are loose - for example, the scrotum and breasts; the eyes bulge and the tongue swells to fill the mouth and protrudes beyond the teeth.
  • One to six months: The thoracic and abdominal cavities may be burst open by the pressure of the accumulated gases. The bones of the cranium may be separated, allowing the brain to escape. The soft parts are more or less absorbed. Recognition of the features is impossible. Determination of sex from the external features alone may be impossible.
  • (From The Principles and Practice of Embalming by Frederick and Strub)
Body of St. Teresa Margaret of the Sacred Heart

All in all, it's a good thing we're biodegradeable, as food for worms, mulch for daisies. Imagine billions of incorrupt corpses... countless preserved carcasses piling up in salt mines, gravel pits, Arctic waste. We'd quickly run out of real estate. Cemeteries would be forced to expand vertically, mausolea scraping the skies.

Americans are so unnaturally obsessed with leaving an eternally pretty corpse that the USA is the only country in the world that embalms its dead and holds open-casket funerals.

Can we attribute this to Pharaonic superstition? Compulsive repression of the reality of death by a culture that thrives on violent fantasy yet purchases its meat wrapped in cellophane? Simony — buying our way into immortality? Are we all trying to be big shots, as we ape the cadaverous high-fashion of Tutankhamen, Lenin, and the incorrupt saints? Or are we merely victims of the conventions and browbeating avarice of the funeral industry?

Jessica Mitford's muckraking American Way of Death lays bare the ghoulish greed of the death business. In a hilarious chapter, Mitford quotes from Forest Lawn literature that attempts to persuade the grieving from such unprofitable practices as taking home the cremation urn, or worse, scattering the ashes of the decedent:

  • In the past and in areas where protective legislation has not been enacted, receptacles containing cremated remains have sometimes been kept in homes and have been lost through fire [!], burglary, or other unforeseen occurrences, resulting in lasting remorse. Even more regrettable are the results of the practice known as "scattering.'' Recognizable fragments of the human frame that come hurtling out of the skies, wash ashore on beaches, or roll about underfoot in gardens and parks appall the strangers who encounter them and cause lifelong heartache to those who have had any share in such disposition of loved one's remains.

There is more threat than reverence implied in the preceding. Forest Lawn's message to the bereaved brings home to roost all the ancient fears and taboos implicit in the handling of the dead. Superstition is the undertaker's ace in the hole. Most Americans are of the conviction that stinting on a funeral brings bad luck, at the very least.

The specter of malignancy does not always attend the dead, especially in connection with the miraculous cases of saintly incorruption. In The Incorruptible Flesh, Piero Camporesi writes about the insatiable urge of the pious to gather religious relics:

  • Medieval fascination with the behavior of saintly bodies under post mortem sets the scene for a morbid and nightmarish drama of which their bones, flesh, and blood are the tormented protagonists, engaged in a long and restless iter which persisted, in some cases, across the ages. One catches glimpses of nocturnal life in convents, of macabre and spine-chilling operations more akin to butchery, of rudimentary dissections carried out with knives and razors by hands which, while devout, shook with inexperience.

One such dissection attended the body of Sister Chiara of Montefalco. It was decided by the Augustinian nuns that her virgin flesh should not be touched ''by any man whatsoever,” including the barber-surgeon (embalmer). A document dated 1663 describes the nuns’ blessed autopsy and their astonishing discovery:

  • The excess of blood was such that they did not at first see what was contained therein; they knew well enough that the heart is concave and divided into two parts, being a whole only in its circumference; then Sister Francesca felt with her finger that in the middle of one section there ran a nerve; and when she drew it out, they saw to their amazement that it was a cross, formed of flesh, which had been ensconsed in a cavity of the same shape as the cross. Upon seeing this, Sister Margarita began shouting, "A miracle, a miracle...."
  • It occurred to Sister Giovanna, after observing this phenomenon, that the heart might harbor other mysteries: so she told Sister Francesca to continue her inspection with greater attention.... And in so doing, she encountered another small nerve standing up in the heart, like the Cross; and studying it carefully, they realized that it represented the Whip, or Scourge, with which Christ was beaten at the pillar.

The amazing Sister Chiara is only one of many miracle corpses profiled in The Incorruptibles by Joan Carroll Cruz. "Destined to enlighten and convince,” reads the blurb on the back cover. Though freethinkers may argue that enlightenment does not always lead to conviction, Cruz's book is a stunning compilation of supernatural intervention in the reliquary.

Among the dozens of incorruptibles profiled are St. Rita of Cascia, "Saint of Impossible and Desperate Cases," whose corpse quite impossibly "shifted positions several times, plus the eyes have opened and closed unaided," and the "dwarfed, malformed body of Blessed Margaret of Metola," who was buried in 1320 and was discovered incorrupt after exhumation in 1558.

Cruz insists that these beatified and none-too-beautiful bodies

  • were never embalmed or treated in any manner, yet most were found lifelike, flexible, and sweetly scented many years after death, in sharp contrast to [accidentally or deliberately preserved bodies], who without exception were found stiff, discolored, and skeletal. The mystery of their preservation is further compounded by the observance of blood and clear oils - which have proceeded from a number of these holy relics — a phenomenon which again, needless to say, was never recorded with regard to the deliberately or accidentally preserved.

In the photographic documentation, the incorruptible saints appear more like the ghastly mummies of Guanajuato than the good-as-new, limber wonders Cruz insists they are. We were disappointing to learn that the fresh-looking cover-girl corpse of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes is only a figurine modeled in wax. It's fascinating and delightfully macabre reading just the same, especially when Ms. Cruz documents such miraculous occurrences as the curative corpse fluid of St. Charbel Makhlouf or the sweet "odor of sanctity" that accompanies the festering sores of saints bleeding in magnificent empathy with the ripped, gouged, and maimed Blessed Martyrs.

Miracles are not restricted to the immortal flesh. Joan Carroll Cruz's later book, Relics, reveals the stories behind hosts that defy gravity and turn into flesh, blood of saints preserved in glass vessels that go turbid or boil on holy days, pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary that weep, etc. Keep in mind that Cruz only writes about authenticated relics, ones that have their Vatican-chartered cults of veneration. These are no five-and-dime, Jesus-on-the-tortilla-variety apparitions.

As far as pious hoaxes are concerned, there are none better documented than that of a nun named Magdalena de la Cruz, who claimed to have stigmata, to have lived without food except for the Blessed Sacrament, and to have flown through the air during her ecstasies. According to Herbert Thurston's Physical Phenomena of Mysticism, Magdalena, whose favorite trick was the miraculous appearance of the host on her tongue during Communion, was caught filching hosts from the ciborium.

Thurston's book is the most remarkable compilation of high weirdness surrounding the Nazarene cult since the New Testament. Here we have exhaustive chapters on levitating priests, stigmatic ecstatics, telekinetic hosts, glow-in-the-dark saints, saints who cannot be lit on fire, saints who burn so much with divine love that their hands induce water to boil, sweet-smelling corpses of the faithful, beatified servants of Scripture whose corpses did not rigidify, blind mystics who could see, saints who could survive without food, and more.

Thurston, a Jesuit priest, accepts nearly all the phenomena as tokens of divine intervention, except for stigmatization, which he terms the "crucifixion complex":

  • Once it had been brought home to contemplatives that it was possible to be physically conformed to the sufferings of Christ by bearing His wound marks in hands, feet, and side, then the idea of this form of union with their Divine Master took shape in the minds of many. It became in fact a pious obsession; so much so that in a few exceptionally sensitive individuals the idea conceived in the mind was realised in the flesh.

Stigmata take the form of spontaneous wounds in the hands, feet, and side in empathy with the Passion of Christ. Edwards, Gabel, and Homer's article "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ" (first printed in the March 21, 1986 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association) quite plainly proves that those nailed to the cross must have been fastened through the wrist, not through the hand. (Nailing through the palm would not support the weight.) It would be interesting to see where future stigmatists, forewarned to the appropriate location of wound marks, will bleed.

The remarkable Therese Neumann, who became quite "Rubensesque" in later years, subsisted solely on the Eucharist and water for 36 years of her life, ending at her death in 1966. Neumann is renowned for bleeding copiously through her eyes during her "ecstasies," in which Christ appears to her in a scene out of the Passion. A scientific sampling of Therese's eye blood revealed the substance to be menstrual fluid.

Padre Pio, Therese Neumann's competitor for most famous stigmatist of the 20th Century, received his wounds via a celestial messenger:

While I was hearing a boy's confessions on the evening of the 5th, I was suddenly terrorized by the sight of a celestial person who presented himself to my mind's eye. He had in his hand a sort of weapon like a very long, sharp-pointed steel blade which seemed to emit fire. At the very instant that I saw all this, I saw that person hurl the weapon into my soul with all his might. I cried out with difficulty and felt I was dying. I asked the boy to leave because I felt ill and no longer had the strength to continue. This agony lasted uninterruptedly until the morning of the 7th. I cannot tell you how much I suffered during this period of anguish. Even my entrails were torn and ruptured by the weapon, and nothing was spared. From that day on I have been mortally wounded. I feel in the depths of my soul a wound that is always open and which causes me continual agony. (From They Bore the Wounds of Christ: The Mystery of the Sacred Stigmata, by Michael Freze)

The Padre spent many nights in physical battle with the agents of Satan:

  • The devil won't admit defeat. He has appeared in almost every form. For the past few days he has paid me visits along with some of his satellites armed with clubs and iron weapons and, what is worse, in their own form as devils. I cannot tell you how many times he has thrown me out of bed and dragged me around the room.

Padre Pio rates up near the top in the sweepstakes of suffering, yet St. Lydwine of Schiedam, who took on all forms of human disease, seems the most afflicted victim soul of the past millennium. To her everlasting credit, St. Lydwine experienced the following medical crises: gallstones the size of eggs, decayed lungs and liver,''plague' (with one bubo appearing on her anus and the other near the heart), worms, skin tumors, ergotism, neuralgia, stomach cancer, blindness, severe toothaches, and, of course, stigmata. It is not known whether St. Lydwine ever contracted the common cold. But of course, only a true soldier of the Cross could have been blessed by such divine agony!

Lyall Watson, an admitted agnostic on the question of the supernatural, is given to believe that stigmata and related miraculous phenomena are a trick of the mind: "I have seen a fakir in Madras make the hands of a member of the audience bleed by hypnosis; and Stephen Black has a patient who was able to produce an appropriate puncture mark and swelling, when simply reminded of an injection given 20 years previously," reports Lyall Watson in The Romeo Error, making all the Christian hocus-pocus seem like a trick of the mind. And, perhaps, an ecumenical trick of faith.

It may be disconcerting for Catholics to note that the most substantiated case of contemporary bodily incorruption comes from the death of the Indian yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. In a detailed, three-page, notarized letter to the Self-Realization Fellowship, dated May 16, 1952, Harry T. Rowe, Mortuary Director of Forest Lawn, describes an "unparalleled" case of immutability of the flesh: "No physical disintegration was visible in Paramahansa Yogananda's body even 20 days after death."

In search of further answers on blood miracles and flesh that refuses to decay, I exit the 405 freeway at San Fernando Mission Boulevard and park at the holiest shrine the San Fernando Valley can offer. Strutting inside the mission's grounds are a gaggle of noisy hens, leaf-blowing Mexican gardeners, field-tripping schoolchildren, and Flannery O'Connor peacocks. Within the archives building, I hit pay dirt.

The Monsignor in charge, Francis J. Weber, a confident, physically expansive man with a lazy eye, toiled eight long years as a student of mortuary science. He's rather skeptical of incorruption as a divine phenomenon. "When you work in a mortuary, as I did, you see all sorts of — well, I have exhumed dozens of people, and all have had differing rates of decomposition.” Monsignor Weber describes what occurred to a Chinese princess who died during the war and was stuck for some time in a receiving vault. He, along with others, was sent to oil her skin, and strangely enough, her body looked moist and perfectly preserved. Incorruptibility of the body is not a precondition for determination of sainthood, cautions the Monsignor. "Some of the greatest saints have decomposed."

The Monsignor's skepticism (cynicism?) is a bit unnerving. Didn't the Vatican authenticate many cases of incorruptibility listed in Joan Cruz's study?

"Well," reasons Monsignor Weber, "many of these cases could have been of preternatural origin."

Preternatural?

"Well, you have natural causes, then you have supernatural cause, which is of divine origin. Then you have the preternatural cause, which is not of divine origin but cannot be explained by science either."

Asked whether he believes in the miraculous, the Monsignor hedges his bets and discusses the supporting evidence that must accompany miracles for Vatican approval. "The Church says a pious aberration is not impossible, that it just may be possible. It is sometimes better to encourage faith by looking the other way when a false relic is venerated than destroying faith by making a fast pronouncement." As for himself, the Monsignor remembers an incident when he was called on to relocate the figure of a saint to a "less conspicuous" shrine. As he was moving the wax figure out the sacristy door, scaffolding fell, almost killing him. The Monsignor believes that he was protected by the saint. "But how are you going to prove it? It's a personal, subjective experience.

"Right now there's very little emphasis on relics," relates Monsignor Weber. "We're more into scripture and doctrine these days. Relics are tangential to faith."

Relics are nevertheless displayed at the mission's archives behind glass cases. Among the historico-religious bric-a-brac, which includes an autographed baseball from the Los Angeles Dodgers, were bits of the Apostles enclosed in lovely jeweled cases.

"You can still get relics in Europe," says Monsignor Weber.

You mean you can buy bones of the saints?

"Buy? Don't ever say buy!" thunders the Monsignor. "You make an offering.”

— Adam Parfrey

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