Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Reliquary relinquished

I recently read this article about the return of relics to the Roman Catholic Church (or to some RC churches). Within the piece, the author has this to say:

After all, these spiritual accoutrements were a large part of the Catholic experience for well over a millennium. But a quiet groundswell of Catholics won't give up this time-honored tradition of praying to a saint's bodily remain. Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the Latin Mass. So why not bring back an emphasis on relic veneration as well? A French priest is currently touring the United States with the supposed bones of Mary Magdalene, and the faithful are flocking to pray in front of them. In September and October, the relics of a 19th-century nun, St. Therese of Lisieux, went on a 28-stop tour around Great Britain. If the thousands of devotees who came to witness these lovely bones are any indication, the faithful are hungering for a less sterile form of religion.

While there's no scholarly consensus on when relic veneration began, many historians point to the year 156 A.D. and the death of Polycarp, then bishop of Smyrna (in modern-day Turkey). He got on the Romans' bad side by praying to Jesus instead of the Roman gods, and he was burned. After the pyre cooled, Polycarp's followers scurried over and scooped up his remains and ran off with them. With that, the cult of relics was born.


I'm wrestling with the idea of relics. Can I call them holy souvenirs? What is the point of a relic? To remind the believer of an encounter with the divine, to enrich one's faith, to collect?

I'm struggling to separate the tangential symbol from the non-tangential experience. I like to things to commemorate places I've been or people (usually living) I've seen. However, I get the most spiritual peace from the blessing that is on something, from a medal to the elements of Holy Communion.

Perhaps that is what brings comfort to those who are seeking the bone fragments, pieces of cloth or strands of hair. Perhaps belief in the closeness of a saint gone on to that item brings a spiritual strength that I can't understand, but it doesn't make it any less real to that person.

Part of the reason we have water, bread and wine in our sacramental practice is so that we have earthly elements, which we understand, to bring us to a deeper understanding of, faith in and nourishment by the promises and actions of God in Christ. We call baptism and Holy Communion the means of grace, for they are means by which God communicates grace to us.

However, we can also have strict rules and ceremonies around the means of grace, some of which can strip away the grace. Perhaps the veneration of relics offers a glimpse of grace to some people, the knowledge that God has performed miracles in the past and has promised to continue to do so.

So I have a definite statement about relics. I suppose I don't, though I thought I did when I started writing this.

I'm not one who leans toward saying "to each his own" when it comes to matters of faith and faithful living. I believe the Bible offers us hope through Christ and that's the place where I hang my heart. However, without some relic veneration, we might not have preserved copies of the letters of Paul, the book of Revelation, the hymns of the early church. So somewhere in there is the place where the Spirit works so that the evidence of faith may be preserved. Thanks be to God.

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