Bones, tongues, ears, arms, hands, heads. Wood, thorns and cloth. These relics, the stuff of holiness, are treasured by the Catholic and Orthodox, venerated, embedded in altars and celebrated in vast cathedrals. Whatever the truth about the Turin Shroud itself, relics are part of our faith.
The secularists may scoff and the reformers may rage and try to tear them down, but the truth is that the intuition to honour the earthly remains of holy women, men and children isn’t the invention of medieval shrine managers out to exploit credulous pilgrims. The faith that God works and reaches out through human beings and their bodies – even after their death – is of course rooted in Scripture and ancient Christian tradition.
In the Old Testament, for example, we read that contact with the bones of the Elisha bring a dead man – whose body was cast into the same grave as the prophet – back to life. In the New Testament, Mark’s Gospel tells us of a woman suffering from a haemorrhage, healed by touching the garment of Christ in faith. After Pentecost, the Acts of the Apostles relates that during Paul’s years in Ephesus, God worked great miracles through him, including healing through what we might call relics: when face cloths or aprons that touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:12, NAB)
The early Christians cared for their dead and venerated their martyrs’ bodies. After Polycarp was martyred in the mid-2nd century, his fellow Christians gathered up his body and prayed in its presence, noting especially the anniversary of his death. That reverencing is not so difficult for the modern mind to grasp – in our own ways, some ordinary and others strange, we do honour our own dead, even in non-religious ways.
No, it isn’t just the honour – it’s the prayers. What’s challenging for moderns to grasp is the possibility that God can – or would even bother to – work through these relics and that we are in their presence: we’re not just reminded, we’re in actual communion.
But that, too, is ancient. The stories of Elisha and Paul aren’t about honour paid, but about prayers answered, hope fulfilled and faith rewarded. St Augustine, in the City of God, provides an early indicator of this continuity: “For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints …”
These are not offered as simplistic proof-texts, but as evidence of continual trusting faith in the profound, deep logic of Creation and Incarnation. In his wisdom, God chooses to create the world and work through it. If he can work through the wind, a mix of spittle and dirt and even through our human weakness, why can’t he work through this piece of cloth?
For we will find relics, whether we claim a religion or not. We will save scraps of paper and bits of jewellery. We will take out a box from deep in the closet and sift through its contents, remembering. We might even wonder if in the presence of these trinkets, we are still connected and perhaps, somewhere, someone is waiting for us.
We know we are changed by knowing others, and we yearn to stay connected. We know that communion, not brokenness, is what we have been created for, and we try to hang on to even small signs that reassure us. The Catholic veneration of relics confirms this very human intuition and reveals what that inchoate hope is really about, standing humbly in the light of God’s power to move where he will.
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