Of Relics and the Resurrection

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.”
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  • Oh wow! Timely reminder. I too have a love of relics (a reaction to my oh-so-sceptical scientific training!)Thanks for the excellent post!

  • Fr. Longnecker, I just have to say I love your blog. Keep up the excellent work.TGA

  • Bravo!

  • I am deeply sorry to have to post this, but from my own reading Carsten Peter Thiede (1952-2004) was a not uncontroversial “expert” who specialised in writing popular and financially lucrative books, and the majority of whose claims were dismissed as groundless by mainstream scholars. He had never held an academic post and directed his own institute. The Titulus Crucis in Santa Croce was subjected to radio-carbon 14C dating in 2002 by Francesco Bella and Carlo Azzi working in the Physics Department of Rome University “Roma Tre”, and dated at between 996 and 1146 AD. (Published in Radiocarbon, vol.44 no.3, 2002, pp 685-689.)I too want to believe, but with a weary sigh all too often have to bow to Erasmus.

  • Londiniensis, Thank you for your comment. Thiede’s work was certainly controversial, but I’m not sure that you’re correct about his credentials. The Daily Telegraph’s obituary shows him to be an accomplished academic, if somewhat eccentric in his interests. Does it matter that he wrote his books for a popular audience? He gave some good reasons for not putting much credence in carbon 14 dating, as have other experts, so I guess the debate will continue, and to tell the truth, it’s more fun if it does isn’t it?

  • Jeannine

    I loved your comment about the physicality of the Catholic faith. Real things happened to real people in real history, and that matters. This was one of the insights, if I remember it correctly, of Evelyn Waugh’s Helena. The Resurrection teaches us that the body is not immaterial–it matters!

  • This is one of the reasons I love being Catholic– there is a definite sense of it being a physical thing. Relics, aside from being a visble link to our past are, for me, also the strongest manifestations of the communion of sants. Here is a finger that touched the Savior’s blood, here is a thorn that caused blood to weep down His face, here is the skin of a saint who was flayed, here is the skull of the Baptist, who baptized Our Lord in the river Jordan. It’s the very incarnation of a smack in the face, perhaps even more so when you are considering an ossified arm. Excellent post.

  • Father, I would like to apologise to you, to readers of your blog and to the memory of C P Thiede for my false assessment of Thiede’s academic credentials (in the second sentence of my comment, above). I was misled by my mis-reading of a critical article and my own execrable knowledge of German, although that should be no excuse when writing ill of someone.I still believe that his conclusions on the Titulus Crucis were seriously flawed, however personally I may regret this.

  • As a monk of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, living daily with the Sacred Relics of the Cross and Passion, I must say that the strongest evidence in favour of their authenticity is the grace I so often see here being poured into hearts and producing tears of compunction and conversions from sin.I also hold to the axiom “lex orandi,lex credendi” — that being said, we do have proper Mass and Office for the Feast of the Finding of the Titulus. That’s quite enough for me.

  • Great to hear from you Father! Thanks for commenting.

  • DGus

    Matter does indeed matter. Our final destination is resurrection, body AND soul reunited; God the Father created all things, visible AND invisible; Jesus is true God AND true man, and we need a faithy grounded in spiritual truth and mundane reality.But our mundane realities must be TRUE. “We cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (2 Cor. 13:8.) If it makes no difference whether a relic is authentic or not–i.e., if the relic produces the same spiritual benefits even if it is a fraud–then the real event is in the imagination of the devotee, and ultimately the relic and its use are the ENEMIES of the proposition that matter does matter.

  • DGus, thank you for a perceptive comment. What you say is true, and when a relic is an obvious fraud or fake, then we do well to discard them. However, if there is doubt either way (as I believe there is with the Turin Shroud and the relics mentioned here) then there is still the open-endedness that allows for their use.There are two other points: it is possible to venerate a relic for its symbolic use and its antiquity. A relic may be a fake, but it may be a venerable fake–in which case it has the quality of, say, an ancient and venerable icon.Let’s say St Helena really went to Jerusalem and really found a cross and really brought it back to Rome, and it was venerated there for nearly 2000 years as the true cross, but let’s imagine that the locals sold the Emperor’s mother the wood of just any old cross. If we knew that for sure, we would have to say so, but we could still be in awe of it, and use it for devotional purposes much as we would if we visit the Holy Land and see the places and touch the stones that Jesus saw. Finally, while relics have their purpose, it’s not helpful to place too much emphasis on them.

  • sarah schmidt

    As a new Catholic (all five in my family recently converted from evangelical Protestatism) I find the beauty and grandeur of Catholicism almost overwhelming emotionally and intellectually. The relics are such a thrill to me. I had no idea there were such treasures as I wandered through the desert of Protestatism. Thank you for preserving, by God’s grace, the treasures of His Church!