What's the Story with Relics? Part 1

Within a few days of the martyrdom of St. Polycarp in the mid-second century, the members of his community sent a report to other Churches with a full eyewitness account. In the course of it, they not only described what they saw, but also revealed quite a bit to future generations about the common assumptions they shared with other Christians of the time, and the common misunderstandings their non-Christian neighbors, both Jew and Pagan, had about them. Describing their frustration with the hostility shown their attempts to honor the body of their sainted martyr, they complained that the devil “did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh.” The Romans, at the suggestion of the local Jewish leaders, chose to burn the body of Polycarp rather than permit burial lest, “forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one.” Polycarp’s friends, in frustration, explained “it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!” The Roman, unmoved, burn Polycarp to ashes and the disciples, as soon as the fires cooled, took Polycarp’s bones and honored them, especially on the anniversary of the day he finished his earthly race and entered into Heaven.

Several things should be noticed here. First, note that the Jewish and pagan persecutors sound remarkably like modern fundamentalist Christians in that they cannot distinguish between the worship Christians give to Jesus as the Son of God and the veneration they pay to mere creatures like Polycarp. In contrast, the authors of the letter assume (and know their readers assume) that it is a perfectly normal and good thing for Christians to “become possessors of [a saint’s] holy flesh” as a “memorial”. But they desire to do so, not in order to ignore Jesus and batten on the corpse of Polycarp as a new god, but because they honor him as a servant of Christ. Moreover, they assume that the remains of the saint are to be accorded fitting honors and venerated both in celebration of the saint’s “finished course” and as inspiration for those of us still on earth who have yet to finish the race.

The key to understanding such a record is to note what the authors and readers take for granted: namely, that all of this is not something the venerators of Polycarp’s relics just came up with. Rather, it is rooted in something fundamental in human nature, rooted in both the Old and New Testaments and in the development of Christian thinking in light of the incarnation.

Honoring the dead is, of course, a practice as old as, indeed, older than the human race as we know it. An extinct species of human, Homo Neanderthalensis, is known to have buried his dead. Our ancestors, Homo Sapiens Sapiens, did likewise. This is a sea change from all other creatures in the animal kingdom and suggests that some form of reverence of the dead and hope or fear of an afterlife goes right back to the roots of human consciousness. And, of course, it remains a constant to this day.

The Chosen People were no different. Building on this immemorial human impulse, one of the acts of piety in ancient Judaism, as in Christianity, was “burying the dead”. And in some Old Testament stories, we see the remains of saints being used by God in a quasi-sacramental way to communicate divine power (as, for instance, in the story of the man who was brought back from the dead by contact with the bones of Elisha the prophet [2 Kings 13:20-21]). Similarly, other objects (notably, the Ark of the Covenant or the staff of Moses) are seen as imbued with some sort of spiritual power.

So too, in the New Testament, there is the constantly reiterated intuition that God will channel his life, power and grace through physical objects. So the woman who has suffered from bleeding for twelve years seeks to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment in her bid for healing. Moreover, Jesus does not rebuke her as superstitious but instead commends her faith (Luke 8:43-47). Indeed, Jesus himself will use everything from saliva to water to mud to his own hands in order to communicate his grace and power.

And the apostles come to understand why. The ancient human intuition about the sacredness of the dead human body and the curious apprehension that matter has to communicate life and grace comes to a focus in Jesus himself. As John tells us, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In Christ, the ancient riddle is finally laid bare: creation is not God (and so creatures cannot be worshiped). But because God has taken on a body of matter in Jesus Christ, matter is hallowed and taken up by its Creator to participate in the work of redemption. Supremely, the human body—even the dead human body—is hallowed because God himself not only suffered bodily death, but rose again. The ancient intuition that the dead human body is sacred and not simply meat that should be left to rot is emphatically blessed and transformed when the women bring spices to the tomb only to find Jesus’ corpse transformed into a glorified body that will never know death again.

For this reason, the Church would immediately begin to venerate holy things. For instance, handkerchiefs that Paul had touched were venerated (understandably so, since those touched them were miraculously healed thereby [Acts 19:11-12]). Likewise, the sick believed that Peter’s mere shadow had the power to heal (Acts 5:14-15). And, of course, the entire Christian tradition was absolutely centered on the proposition that each and every Mass consisted of our entering into transformative union with the True Body and Blood of the Risen Christ.

That is the basis for the theology of relics in the Catholic tradition: God likes matter. He made it. He dwells forever in a glorified human body that has been transfigured into the first deposit on the New Heaven and the New Earth. His Mother, likewise, enjoys this transformed bodily life. The great field of time, space, matter and energy is undergoing a messy act of renovation that will issue, on That Day, in the transformation of all of reality, including our bodies in the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life Everlasting.

So, as a sign, the Church honors God via the relics of the bodies of the saints, the things that they used, and the lives that they touched. It’s a classic instance of grace perfecting nature: taking our natural impulse to cherish Dad’s watch, gawk at Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers in the Smithsonian, or sleep where George Washington once slept and putting that impulse in touch with the sacramental power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives. So we cherish a relic of St. Catherine of Siena, look in wonder at the Shroud of Turin or stand in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and reflect on the fact that Jesus Christ slept in death here—and awoke.

Next time, we'll talk about a few popular relics.