Excerpt from The Jesus Thief by J.R. Lankford, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Jesus Thief

by J.R. Lankford

The Jesus Thief
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    Mar 2003, 287 pages

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Chapter 1

Wednesday p.m., January 12—Turin, Italy

For the better part of his forty-two years, Dr. Felix Rossi had wanted to be here in the Capella Della Sacra Sindone, the chapel at the top of the stairs in the Duomo, Turin’s Renaissance cathedral, when priests came to open the tabernacle. Only six times before in the twentieth century had it happened and rarely in the presence of anyone but the priests. He’d wanted to stand beneath Guarini’s famous glass-paned dome as the sun cast dazzling kaleidoscopes of brilliance down through the tabernacle’s iron gates. The day had, at last, arrived.

In awe he waited with Father Bartolo, black marble beneath their feet, a white marble balustrade surrounding them, angels at each end. Everywhere in this chapel its designer, Guarini, had put statues of angels. For over four hundred years they had been here—blowing trumpets, playing harps, flying on spread wings, hovering in a frozen watch as they guarded Christianity’s most famous relic. Sunlight flashed off the pair of gold Cherubs above the gates and the two Archangels leaning on their staffs as if to regard only him. In the brilliant light, Felix Rossi could barely see, but he couldn’t look away. He would remember this moment until he died.

No one spoke as two priests climbed on the altar to open the tabernacle’s iron gates and withdraw a silver casket. In 1509, Marguerite of Austria commissioned it for its special purpose on condition that a daily mass be said for her. Five feet long, one foot square, and encrusted with jewels, it was tied with red ribbon and sealed with red wax.

Within it lay the Shroud of Turin.

Slowly, carefully, they handed it down to Felix, who for this occasion represented science, and to Father Bartolo who represented faith—an often-uneasy alliance, but not today. Felix had quietly assembled the team of experts that waited to examine the Holy Shroud. It had undergone two previous scientific investigations—one in 1978, one in 1988. His would be the third.

Through a new Pontifical Custodian of the Shroud, the Church had picked him, over objections from a bishop who thought Felix’s looks drew too much notice from young women. The Custodian had pointed out Felix’s dual Harvard MD-PhD in medicine and microbiology, his much-recognized and objective scientific approach, that he was Catholic, devout, and philanthropic toward the church. The bishop was overruled. In exchange, Felix asked only for secrecy regarding his work on the Shroud, though it was the focus of his life.

But with his dreams about to come true, he looked away from the silver casket and felt the coldness of the marble room, smelled the suffocating residue of centuries of burning incense, its smoke rising from the cathedral to help the prayers of the faithful climb.

For this ceremony, the cardinal wore the red biretta on his head, had dressed in a red cassock, a knee-length white surplice atop. He lifted high a silver crucifix and said, "In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti Amen," then crossed himself. The others did the same. Felix was slow to move his hand and did so mechanically, hoping no one noticed. Then eight priests in black cas-socks and white surplices made a double line behind the cardinal.

Nodding to old Bartolo, Felix lowered his end of the casket to bear the greater portion of its weight. He and Bartolo came down the two steps from the balustrade and rounded the altar, following the priests. Until 1865 this had been the chapel of the Dukes of Savoy—who became Italy’s royal family—and an entrance to the palace’s west wing remained. There, in the sacristy, the scientists would work.

Cameras flashed when they stepped into the long, gilded hallway. The photos wouldn’t appear in the press because these were church photographers, making a record for the scientists and the priests. A woman among them flushed when she caught Felix’s gaze and without thought, he angled his head and let his black hair fall in his eyes so he wouldn’t see her—as if he’d taken vows with the priests. He wanted nothing to distract him from the dignity of this procession, though Felix knew something already had.

Copyright © 2003 Jamilla Rhines Lankford. All rights reserved. Used with permission of Great Reads Books LLC

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