By Fr. Christopher Robinson
November is a time during which we recall those who have gone before us, our saints and beloved dead. Why not think a bit about an ancient, odd, and sometimes confusing practice or preserving their relics? This reflection will consider how relics have been part of the Christian tradition in the past and how they might continue to be helpful in our contemporary faith communities.
The Catholic tradition is not alone in reverencing the physical remains or possessions of those who have gone before us. One of the first signs archeologists look for when excavating ancient cultures is how the dead were treated. Early Christians would oftentimes gather at the tombs of the martyrs or at sites where they lost their lives to pray, remember, and be encouraged by the examples of heroic believers.
Over many centuries, the custom developed of preserving the remains or relics of Christian heroes in three specific ways that are described as “degrees.”
A first degree relic refers to an actual physical remain of the body of someone who has died. This might include a lock of hair, such as a mother might preserve after her baby’s first haircut. Other first degree relics might be more extreme. For example, the heart of St. Vincent de Paul is preserved in the chapel of the Daughters of Charity motherhouse in Paris.
A second degree relic refers to a possession of a saint that was very close to the body, such as a shirt, religious habit, sandals, or other article of clothing. The second degree relic was as close to the saint’s or hero’s body as it can be without actually being a part of the body.
Finally, a third degree relic is something that was part of a saint’s faith life, such as a bible or rosary. For example, the library of Cardinal Newman is well preserved in Birmingham, England for study and inspiration.
The very idea of relics can be fairly repugnant to some Christians, particularly Christians who are not part of the Western Latin or Eastern Orthodox traditions. Why would anyone want to see, much less reverence, the femur or tongue of a dead saint? It sounds pretty barbaric in many ways.
It is important to remember how deeply important Christianity reveres the physical world. In the Book of Genesis we are reminded that all of creation is good. Embodiment means each human person shares physically in the mystery of the Incarnation. John’s Gospel states, “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” This means that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God. But it also means that each person is a word of God. Flesh matters!
This is partly why the physical body of a saint matters. The Christian tradition defines a saint as someone who is with God in heaven. In a way, touching a relic means touching someone who is beholding God face to face.
The Middle Ages, however, distorted some of the early traditions of relics. The historical period between the 1200’s to the 1500’s was filled with the Black Death, the sharing and collision of ideas during various Crusades, and the virtual collapse of the papacy as a result of the Avignon schism. When political and religious institutions failed, popular imagination turned to ideas of magic, superstition, and non-rational religious practices.
In a way, Christian relics were transformed into what might be considered horcruxes, as defined by the world of Harry Potter. A horcrux in the fictional J.K. Rowling created Potterverse is basically a physical object that contains a tiny essence of the wizard who has placed it there. It is a way of preserving the life spirit of the owner so that he or she can basically live forever at the expense of the lives of others. Rowling may have been inspired to come up with the idea of horcruxes based on the distortions and heresies of the Middle Ages regarding relics.
The medieval period fell into a pattern of believing the relics of the saints were powerful objects in and of themselves, divorced from the greater theology of the body. Consequently, it was thought that the greater the saint, the more powerful the relic. Tales of miraculous healings and triumph against enemies in war became associated with the relics of saints such as St. Joan of Arc or St. James the Greater. As the demand for greater and more powerful relics grew, fabrication or counterfeit relics became commonplace.
The difficult and challenging cultural transition from the medieval “Age of Faith” to modernity’s “Age of Reason” impacted the Christian tradition immensely. As the Protestant, Anglican, and Catholic reformations ran their course, the emphasis on the ancient tradition of relics diminished. Reform helped correct the improper balance, superstition, and even worship of the physical relics of the saints. The Second Vatican Council of the 20th Century brought even more clarity to what is and what is not a relic of any degree.
There is a first degree relic of a saint contained in every altar but it is generally not visible. Rather, it is a reminder that faith is built on those who came before and it preserves the great contributions made by Christian heroes. A true relic always points the way towards God, community, and service.