There is a beautiful story about the face cloth of Jesus circulating on the internet:
Why did Jesus fold the linen burial cloth after His resurrection? The Gospel of John (chapter 20, verse 7) tells us that the napkin which was placed over the face of Jesus was not just lying in place like the grave clothes. The Bible takes an entire verse to tell us that the napkin was folded and placed apart from the grave clothes. Early Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and found that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. She ran and found Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved. She said, ‘They have taken the Lord’s body out of the tomb, and I don’t know where they have put him!’ Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb to see. The other disciple outran Peter and got there first. He stooped and looked in and saw the linen cloth lying there, but he didn’t go in. Then Simon Peter arrived and went inside. He also noticed the linen wrappings lying there, while the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head was folded up and lying to the side. Is that significant? Absolutely! In order to understand the significance of the folded napkin, you have to understand a little bit about Hebrew tradition of that day. The folded napkin had to do with the Master and Servant, and every Jewish boy knew this tradition. When the servant set the dinner table for the master, he made sure that it was exactly the way the master wanted it. The table was furnished perfectly, and then the servant would wait, just out of sight, until the master had finished eating, and the servant would not dare touch that table until the master was finished. Now if the master were done eating, he would rise from the table, wipe his fingers, his mouth, and clean his beard, and would wad up that napkin and toss it onto the table. The servant would then know to clear the table. For in those days, the wadded napkin meant, ‘I’m done.’But if the master got up from the table, folded his napkin, and laid it beside his plate, the servant would not dare touch the table, because………. The folded napkin meant, ‘I’m coming back!’
It’s a beautiful story and I’d love to believe it but I can’t find any evidence that it is accurate. The Greek word σουδαριον (sudarion) means” handkerchief or cloth for wiping perspiration from the face and for cleaning the nose and for swathing the head of a corpse.”* There is no evidence it can refer to a napkin used at a meal.
The Greek word εντετυλιγμενον (entetuligmenon) means “to roll up, wrap together,*” not necessarily “folded.”
And I can’t find any substantiation online that Jewish tradition gave a symbolic meaning to the placement of the napkin at a meal which was understood by masters and servants, much less by “every Jewish boy.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t significance in the fact that on the first day of the week after Jesus’ entombment, the grave held only linen cloth wrappings for a human body and a smaller head-cloth of another material–“separate from the linen”–“lying in a place by itself.” In fact, it’s crucial to the accuracy of the text.
I used to think that the shroud of Turin must be a forgery because the shroud was all one piece and seemed to contradict John 20:7. Then I watched “The Real Face of Jesus” (History Channel, 2010 A&E Television Networks, 88 minutes). I became convinced not only that the image of the face and body of Jesus really burned their way through this particular piece of cloth but that there was a separate face-cloth (probably used from the cross to the tomb) in addition to the shroud used in the tomb.
At a short period of time both pieces of cloth covered the same face–the blood prints match exactly. Both pieces of cloth still exist, although they ended up taking different routes to different places, the shroud to Turin in northern Italy and the face-cloth, of “rough weave and looks like muslin” to Oviedo, Spain.
Whether the napkin lying by itself symbolized anything or not, I know Jesus is coming back.