Of Relics and the Resurrection
April 15, 2007 by 13 Comments
In the reliquary on the left you can see the finger bone of St Thomas the Apostle. On this day when the gospel recounts the story of his challenge to ‘put my fingers in the nail prints’ it’s sweet to see that the finger in question has been preserved as an everlasting memorial to the victory of resurrection over doubt.
The relic (along with a portion from the pillar where Christ was flogged in the center and two thorns from the crown of thorns on the right) are kept in the Church of Sante Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. Along with these relics you can see the cross beam of the good thief’s cross, three large sections of the cross of Christ and the ‘titulus crucis’–the title board that hung over Jesus’ head. (Here’s a picture gallery)
“Come now father,” I hear you protest, ” shall we believe in all the relics? What good are they? Don’t they lend to superstition? Haven’t we moved on from all that?
First let me recount the tale of these particuar relics. In the early fourth century the emporer Constantine’s mother Helena went to Jerusalem to look for the cross of Christ. As the story goes, the Christians showed her the relics, and when she asked for them they made her promise not to remove them from the Holy Land. She agreed, and then proceeded to load a ship with soil from Jerusalem onto which she loaded the relics, thus keeping her promise not to remove them from the Holy Land. Upon arriving at Rome she put the soil down in the grounds of her imperial palace and built a chapel to house the relics. The site of the palace is now the Church of Sante Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. Archeologists have not only discovered the remains of an imperial palace there, but they have also discovered that the soil under the church is from Jerusalem.
So far, so good. Recently a Protestant scholar called Thiede did some work on the titulus crucis. The full story of it can be found here. It makes a fascinating account, and even more credible as the work was done by a Protestant with no particular Catholic axe to grind.
If the relics are authentic, so what? Well, during this Eastertide we do well to remember that our faith is physical. We believe in the incarnation–God’s Son really did take flesh of a woman at a particular place in time. The faith continues to impact the physical realm. It’s all about flesh and blood and fingers and toes and hammers and nails and hands and feet and bread and wine and water and smoke and physical stuff. The relics remind us of this in all their gory simplicity. Yes, here is an arm bone of a saint. There is an incorrupt body for which we have no explanation. Here is a thorn that may have pierced the savior’s brow. There is a cloth that they wrapped him in. Maybe that mysterious imprint is the mark of his resurrection–still there as 2,000 year old photographic evidence.
Shall we believe it all? We are right to be suitably sceptical, but not right to be totally skeptical.
For my money, I’d rather err on the side of gullibility. On the last day I’d rather be blamed for believing too much than too little. Was I too credulous? I trust that will be forgiven. Was I too child like in my wonder and awe? I thought that was one of the kingdom’s entry requirements.
Was I a credulous fool? Ah well, count me among the credulous fools then.
The whole business of relics delights me because it stands this rational world on its head. “Come now Father, we know that it is the spiritual which counts most. Bones of saints and nails from the true cross don’t really matter.”
Really? I thought that saying it was only the spiritual which matters was a little heresy called Manicheanism. Surely because of the incarnation and resurrection we say that matter does matter, and if it matters, then relics–gory and gruesome and literal as they may be–remind us of this fact.
It also reminds me that what I do with my own body matters for better or for worse. Catholics believe that the physical impacts the spiritual and vice versa. If I sin with my body my sould is affected. If I fast with my body my soul is affected.
My oh my, it turns out that it all matters very much, and for this reason, when we wonder at the resurrection let us all abandon doubt and fall down with St Thomas and say, “My Lord and My God.”