14 February 2008

Stuff Matters, even on Valentine's Day

Well, I'm back in Manchester; I arrived yesterday evening, and have spent most of the time since with my cousins. This afternoon, though, I got the Witchway bus up to Nelson in Extreme Lancashire, as I'd a friend to see. It was a good trip, though I'm sorry to say that even going up it was too dark for me to see the wind turbines by Burnley. They're quite a sight. One of my friends says there's no view she prefers to them anywhere in the world, but alas, this time I was to be deprived of that vision.

I'm not long back.

I caught mass while I was in Nelson, and indeed had I been in Dublin I'd have done so too, though at home I'd have made a point out of doing so at the Carmelite Church on Whitefriar Street. It seems that there've been no shortage of saints called Valentine in Roman times, it being a very common name back then, but three stand out as contenders for being the St Valentine we all know and grumble about every 14th February. Pretty much everything we know about the Saint Valentine is pious legend.

So what, you might wonder. Well, it seems that in the early nineteenth century, bones that were identified -- I know, I know, i'm not going there -- as the relics of one of these were exhumed from the catacombs of Saint Hippolytus on Rome's Via Tiburtina. John Spratt, an Irish Carmelite, dazzled Roman crowds with his preaching in 1835, and as a token of gratitude Pope Gregory XVI presented him with a casket containing purported relics of Saint Valentine. This casket was brought to Dublin in November 1836, being installed in the Carmelite Church at Whitefriar Street.

Interest in the relics lapsed after Spratt's death, and they were put into storage; it was only when major renovations were being conducted at the church about fifty years ago that a permanent shrine to St Valentine was built in the church. An altar was constructed, with a niche for the casket below it, and above the altar was placed a life-sized statue of the saint, cast by Irene Broe, barefoot, clutching a crocus, and garbed in the traditional martyr's red.

On the wall beside the shrine is a bronze plaque, supposedly recording the details of the saint's life. Confusingly it has him being arrested and beaten in 269 AD, but not being executed until 290AD,

St Valentine's Day no longer features in the calendar of saints, but I think Whitefriar Street church, like other places where purported relics of the saint are located, takes exception to this. Every 14th February the relinquary is removed from the shrine and placed in front of the high altar, where it is venerated at the masses.

Venerated, mind, not worshipped. Venerated really just means 'honoured', when you get down to it. It's important to get that clear. Protestant Christians often have difficulty -- understandably enough -- grasping the difference between veneration and worship, thinking that the Catholic and Orthodox practice of venerating the relics of saints is idolatrous.

It has to be admitted that there are times when such practices can border on idolatry, and there certainly have been occasions when that line has been crossed, but the fact of such excesses shouldn't be taken as grounds for believing the whole practice is inherently corrupt. More often than not it is, at worst, simply a way of indirectly worshipping God.

What do relics have to do with this, then? Well, it seems that the veneration of the remains of saints and their possessions dates right back to the beginnings of the Church.

Aspects of it, for starters, can be clearly discerned in the New Testament, in such episodes of the woman with the haemorrage who is cured of her bleeding after she touches the fringe of Jesus' robe (Matt. 9.20-22, Mark 5.25-34) and of how bits of fabric that St Paul had touched were taken to the sick, curing the of their illnesses and driving demons from them (Acts 19.11-12).

It's important to remember that miracles are always caused by God -- Paul didn't perform those miracles, for example. If you can accept that, it's easier to understand the significance of relics.

Remember my somewhat irreverent discussion of the prophet Elisha the other day? Well, the episode of the bears took place very early in Elisha's long career -- he reportedly lived for about sixty more years. Unlike his master Elijah, when his time was up he died and was buried. Some time later, a group of people were carrying someone else out for burial. They were startled by the sight of a marauding band of Moabites and flung the body into Elisha's tomb so they could run away. Apparently no sooner had the body touched the bones of the prophet that it was restored to life (2 Kings 13.20-21).

This is important. It is God who performs miracles, after all, and there's no rule restricting him to only using living saints as his instruments. If the early Christians had already learned of the efficacy of things touched by living saints, is it really so surprising that they should come to respect things that had been associated with dead ones, especially since, as far as they were concerned, they weren't really dead? God was the God of the Living, after all, and the righteous who had died were surrounding us them a great cloud of witnesses (Matt. 22.32, Heb. 12.1). With Saint James assuring them of the efficaciousness of the prayers of the righteous (James 5.16-17), surely it made sense to ask them to intercede for them, joining their prayers, not least because St Paul had said that it was Christian duty to offer prayers for people (1 Tim. 2.1.)?

This started happening very early. The tombs of the apostles were being venerated at the latest by the last decade of the First Century, if the anti-Christian diatribe of the Emperor Julian's Against the Galileans can be trusted as a source. If you think about it, it's not hard to see how and why this practice developed: it seems to be a convergence of the belief that the saints in Heaven can intercede for us with the sheer earthiness of mainstream Christianity, which sees the whole world as sacramentally configured by God and recognises the events of Jesus' life as real historical events, rooted in a specific place and time.

Anyway, the point being that at Whitefriar Street church today people would have gathered together to worship God through the mass, and while doing so would have venerated what they believe to be the relics of a martyr. It would have been -- at the very least -- interesting to have joined in that.

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