Wrestling With Relics
My own views would have been terribly out of step in the church's earliest centuries.
I've been working on a cover story for Christianity Today on the spirituality of travel. In any investigation into what the church has historically taught about travel, there's one subject that absolutely unavoidable—something that's pretty disturbing to a committed Protestant like me.
Most of my queasiness, I think, is purely theological. I'm pretty much with Calvin in his critique that
the first abuse, and, as it were, beginning of the evil, was, that when Christ ought to have been sought in his Word, sacraments, and spiritual influences, the world, after its wont, clung to his garments, vests, and swaddling clothes; and thus overlooking the principal matter, followed only its accessory. ... It is of no use to discuss the point whether it is right or wrong to have relics merely to keep them as precious objects without worshiping them, because experience proves that this is never the case.
But part of me, honestly, is also simply put off by the notion of getting close to dead body parts. I'm a queasy man by nature.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I read a church father's defense of relics that acknowledged that dead bodies are indeed repulsive. Interestingly, he found this as evidence of why relics were so holy. Everyone is turned off by dead bodies, he said. But every year we have these huge celebrations of the martyr, with his remains on display, and no one is the slightest bit disturbed. Something holy must be going on, he concluded.
I wasn't sold, but I did enjoy a bit of my reporting rabbit trail trying to understand why the early church was so nearly unanimous in their support for the cult of relics.
Christians were by no means the first people to honor the bones of their fallen. The Old Testament tells of Moses taking the bones of Joseph out of Egypt. (Hebrews 11 places Joseph's directive on this point among the great faith acts of history.) 2 Kings tells of an unnamed dead man hastily thrown into the grave of the prophet Elisha who immediately "revived and stood on his feet" upon touching the holy bones.
And in the early church, the martyrs were at the top of the holiness list. Revelation, after all, told that those "beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God ? will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years."
Writing around A.D. 200, Tertullian famously claimed "the blood of the martyrs is seed [for the church]." Whether he meant it as metaphor or not, the literal blood of the martyrs was precious, with Christians sometimes mopping up martyrs' blood with their own clothes. After Polycarp was killed in A.D. 156, his church circulated a letter about his martyrdom:
We afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.
Such devotion to martyrs and their remains had some critics early on. A priest named Vigilantius, for example, considered such activities to be more pagan than Christian. In response, Jerome insisted that Christians were not worshiping the martyrs any more than the sun, moon, or angels. "We pay honor to the martyr's relics only so that we may venerate him whose martyrs they are; we pay honor to the servants only so that the servants' honor may glorify their Lord." (The fact that we don't even have Vigilantius's own argument and have to read it through Jerome's refutation gives an indication of how thoroughly pro-relic the church was.)
Augustine put it a different way:
The bodies of the dead are not ? to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as his organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, is precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing?
If the bishops like Jerome and Augustine had to defend the veneration of relics to those who said it looked like paganism, they also had to defend it from believers who acted like pagans during the annual martyr celebrations. Sermons from the era are replete with criticisms of drunkenness and prostitution at the celebrations, along with gluttony, nudity, dancing, bawdy songs, commercial activity, and bedlam so great that it prevented any preaching.
And the preaching to such crowds during such celebration mattered. One bishop, Basil of Caesarea, spoke of how important the festivals were to protecting his flock from heresies.
Maybe those fights over heresies were one thing that made relics so important. The early church had spent so much time fighting Gnostics who denied the importance (or the goodness) of the physical world. They fought against those who denied the reality of Christ's humanity. And they fought for the belief in the resurrection of the dead and the communion of saints. It makes sense, I suppose, that the physical remains of martyrs would be important in this context. Matter really mattered.
In his 1999 book, The Way of the Lord, Tom (N.T.) Wright talks about his own
slowly turning away from various forms of dualism, to which evangelicalism is particularly prone, and towards a recognition of the sacramental quality of God's whole created world. ... With the incarnation itself being the obvious and supreme example, and the gospel sacraments of baptism and eucharist not far behind, one can learn to discpver the presence of God not only in the world, as though by a forutnate accident, but through the world: particularly through those things that speak of Jesus himself, as baptism and the eucharist so clearly do, and as the lives of holy men and women have done.
This leads Wright to talk about relics. The cult of relics, he says "can be explained, though not (to my mind) fully justified, in terms of the grace of God at work in the actual physical life of a person. Even after their death (so the argument runs) their body can be regarded as a place where special grace and the presence of God were truly made known."
I'm not convinced, especially since my own interest in the "sacramental quality of God's whole created world" has led me to see the presence of God breaking through suddenly in unexpected places more often than in one predictable location indefinitely. But this week, at least, I'm aware that my views would have been terribly out of fashion during the church's earliest centuries. And even though I think I'm right, it still makes me uncomfortable. More uncomfortable than being next to a dead body, I suppose.
Image: Incorrupt body of St. Vincent de Paul, Paris, France. Photo by Derek89 via Wikimedia Commons. Used by permission.