This month we mark the 750th anniversary of the finding of St Anthony’s incorrupt tongue by St Bonaventure. When considering this practice it may come natural to us to wonder about what the Bible has to say on the veneration of relics. Now there are times when, looking for the origin of a particular custom, we go to the Bible and find exactly when it began in either Israel or the early Church. There are other times when we do not find anything explicit, but we find indications that while that custom came later, its roots were already there. Then there are times when we have to honestly admit that the Bible does not have anything at all to say about what came later. This does not mean that the Church simply made things up, however, for we firmly believe that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit.
When we speak about relics which of these three possibilities best describes the practice of the Church to venerate the bodily remains or objects associated with the life of a saint?
THE OLD TESTAMENT
To answer this question, we should probably divide it up into two parts. The first question is: What was the attitude of the people of Israel toward the bodies of those we consider to be saints? The second question is: Did the Jewish people have objects which they considered to be imbued with the holiness of God?
The attitude of the Jewish people toward those who had died was a bit ambiguous. They did honour bodies by putting them into tombs. We only have to think of the care that Abraham went through to buy a cave in which he could bury his beloved wife, and how that cave became the tomb for a number of the patriarchs of Israel. We also hear about the tombs of the kings. Some of the bad kings, in fact, were refused the honour of being buried in those tombs as a sign of disapproval of the evil they had done.
At the same time, it was not proper to touch a dead body. It rendered one unclean for a certain period of time. This could easily be one reason why, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite passed by the man who had been robbed. They could not touch him lest he had died and they would have been unclean and not able to worship in the Temple. Thus, it would have been unthinkable for Jewish people to preserve a relic of a holy person’s body as a sign of respect and veneration.
At the same time, there were certain objects which the Jewish people venerated and preserved with great respect. One need only think of the objects that Moses stored in the Ark of the Covenant. He put the two Tables of the Law, the Staff of his brother Aaron, and a sample of the Manna which nourished the people in the desert within the Ark.
We also know that the Jewish people carefully preserved the scrolls and papyri upon which the Hebrew Bible had been written. In 1890 a storage room for these texts called a Geniza was discovered in an ancient synagogue in Cairo that was undergoing some renovations. Some of the texts discovered dated back to a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ.
THE NEW TESTAMENT
If one scours the texts of the New Testament, one will not find a passage that speaks about relics as such. There is a reference to the body of John the Baptist which his disciples took away for burial, but it does not say that they then venerated the remains of his body.
And yet there is one tendency within the New Testament, and which can already be found in the pages of the Old Testament, that laid the foundation for the later practice of the veneration of relics. That practice was the promotion of the cult of martyrs.
Already in the Old Testament there are stories of heroic figures who gave up their lives in order to be faithful to the covenant. Second Maccabees tells us the stories of the woman who had seven sons, all of whom died maryrs’ deaths in order not to sin against the Law of Israel. Likewise, there is the story of the elderly wise man Eleazar who refused to pretend to eat unclean meat lest it give a bad example to those who might see him do this.
In the New Testament we hear the story of the martyrdom of Stephen and James. Paul is ready to embrace martyrdom to become a libation that is poured out upon the earth. The martyrs became the heroes of the faith. Rather than viewing their deaths as a great tragedy that called into question the preaching of the early Church (which could have happened if their death had been judged to be a sign of God’s disapproval), their deaths were seen as an opportunity to participate in the sufferings and death of Jesus. In fact, in Colossians, we hear that with their suffering they were filling up what was lacking in the suffering of Christ. What was lacking? Only one thing was lacking: to make the mystery of the cross present again in their own sufferings and deaths.
Likewise, in the Book of Revelation, we hear how Satan was defeated by the blood of the Lamb and the blood of the martyrs. The martyrs were considered to be participants in the great battle against the evil one.
It was this tremendous respect for the martyrs that made the early Christian community want to associate itself with their witness. This led to the practice of celebrating the Eucharist in the vicinity of their tombs, and eventually to extending the physical presence of their tombs by taking some of their remains and placing them in sites of worship outside of the cemeteries in which they had originally been interred. Until recently, every altar for the celebration of the Eucharist contained a small relic of one of the martyrs.
IMPORTANCE OF OBJECTS
One also gets hints in the New Testament of the importance of objects to the faith. In John’s account of the Resurrection, for example, there is reference to two pieces of cloth that had wrapped the dead body of Jesus which were now lying in the tomb. Was that an indication that they were important enough to the community for it to preserve them?
But even beyond that, we see Jesus use physical things in his ministry: bread, wine, oil, spit, breath, etc. These were things that became the raw materials of the sacraments as the Church developed the means to continue the ministry of Jesus after the Ascension. Our faith is not totally spiritual. It gives witness to the marriage of the heavenly realms to this world (e.g. the eternal Word becomes flesh). Things are important, for they help us to ground our faith in this world while we go beyond it to the world to come.
Thus, we cannot say that the idea of venerating relics is found in the Bible, but neither can we say that there is nothing in Sacred Scripture concerning the relics. Rather, it would be proper to say that there are some ideas in the Bible that prepare us to see why these sacred objects can help us in our faith. They remind us that, as the Letter to the Hebrews says, we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. They are tangible reminders of a spiritual reality into which our Lord has invited us.
RELICS ARE TANGIBLE REMINDERS OF A SPIRITUAL REALITY INTO WHICH OUR LORD HAS INVITED US
The word ‘relic’ comes from the Latin ‘relinquo’, literally meaning ‘I leave’ or ‘I abandon’. In the strict sense, relics are material remains of the bodies of canonised and beatified saints; in a wider sense, they are those things used by canonised or beatified persons during their lifetime or objects that have touched their material remains.
In his address to the young on the occasion of the 20th World Youth day in Cologne in 2005, Pope Benedict said: “Relics direct us towards God himself: it is he who, by the power of his grace, grants to weak human beings the courage to bear witness to him before the world. By inviting us to venerate the mortal remains of the martyrs and saints, the Church does not forget that, in the end, these are indeed just human bones, but they are bones that belonged to individuals touched by the living power of God. The relics of the saints are traces of that invisible but real presence which sheds light upon the shadows of the world and reveals the Kingdom of Heaven in our midst. They cry out with us and for us: ‘Maranatha!’ – ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’.”
– This article by Jude Winkler, OFM Conv. was published in “Messenger of Saint Anthony”, issue February 2013. For subscriptions, please contact: Messenger of Saint Anthony, Basilica del Santo, via Orto Botanico 11, 35123 Padua, Italy