15 October 2009

Wrapping Up Relics

Right, so I was saying yesterday that although people tend to think of the veneration of relics as a peculiarly -- even a grotesquely -- Catholic thing, in many ways it's just a popular manifestation of normal human behaviour. Loads of us keep photos of loved ones, treasure keepsakes from special places, visit museums and exhibitions, and lay flowers at graves. There's hardly anyone among us who isn't appalled when graves are desecrated or when war memorials are treated as urinals. We don't think of graves as mere patches of ground, of gravestones and monuments as lumps of carved rock; of wreaths as dead plants or mass-produced paper decorations: these things matter to us, for reasons that go beyond sentiment, though we may find it hard to articulate what those reasons are.

In historical Christianity, as George Weigel keeps saying, 'stuff matters'. The baptismal water actually counts. The holy oils used at baptism, in confirmation, in ordination, and in extreme unction all count. At communion, the bread and the wine really mean something. Ashes, blessed fire, holy water, baptismal salt, incense, candles, palm leaves, flowers, vestments, food -- they all mean something. But what? And how? What does the Church mean when it says that there is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God?

One of my favourite statues is a piece just off Trafalgar Square, in the porch of the Anglican church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Called 'In the Beginning', it's by Mike Chapman, and is a big squared off block on the top of which is carved a newborn baby, with unbilical cord still attached, and around which are the words, taken from the first and fourteenth verses of the first chapter of St John's gospel, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh and lived among us.'

The Catholic Church makes a point of not ripping Biblical passages out of context and resting whole arguments on individual 'proof passages', but I don't think it's going too far to say that this first part of John's first chapter is absolutely central to Catholic theology. John uses the word sarx - flesh - thirteen times in his gospel, and every time he does so he does so in a brutally physical sense. He goes out of his way to show that flesh and spirit are utterly distinct, but he doesn't do this in a Neo-Platonist or Manichean sense; for John flesh may be distinct from spirit, but even so, the Word became flesh! God, who is pure spirit, did not merely veil himself in flesh, as in the popular carol, but he became flesh, and by doing so he sanctified the material world, a world he had already created and recognised as good.*

This incarnational and sacramental understanding of the material world underpins the whole theology of relics, and has done so -- albeit not in a carefully worked out way -- from the time of Our Lord himself. Think of the story of the woman who thought to herself 'If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well,' and who reached out from behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his garment and was healed (Matt. 9.20-22). Her humility alone is striking, as she deliberately doesn't approach Jesus, instead tentatively stretching out merely to touch something he had touched, but even putting aside her indirect approach which Jesus fully validates by saying that her faith has healed her, it's worth asking why she thought this would make a difference. Why did she think that she could be healed simply by touching a thing?

Well, this sacramental understanding of the world had long been a part of Judaism. Look at the stories of Elijah and Elisha. I'm not sure whether we should regard the story of the waters being parted after being struck by the cloak of Elijah (2 Kings 2.8, 13-14) as an example of this, but given how the mechanics of this appear to contrast with Moses' more famous parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14.21-29), it may well be so. Perhaps more instructive is the tale of the bones of Elisha:
'So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. And as a man was being buried, lo, a marauding band was seen and the man was cast into the grave of Elisha; and as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood on his feet.' (2 Kings 13.20-21)
I don't think it does any good to talk here of a measure of the Holy Spirit having stayed with the decaying corpse of the prophet in such a way that a fresh corpse could be revived on contact with Elisha's bones; I'd be very much inclined to doubt that Divine power is a finite resource, or that it gradually fades away, like Carbon-14. I think we simply have to talk here of God choosing to act through physical matter, that matter being the bones -- the physical remains -- of one of his most devoted servants.

The belief that God could -- and did -- act through physical things associated with the most distinguished of his servants was clearly common in the early Church. Think of how, in the months after Pentecost, believers 'even carried out their sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them,' and how years later, when Paul was at Corinth, 'God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them' (Acts 5.15, 9.11-12).

The last pagan emperor of Rome, Julian the Apostate, in a notorious anti-Christian diatribe, Against the Galileans, seems to indicate that the two apostles' tombs were being venerated even during the time of the apostle John: he says that John only explicitly identified Jesus as God, something the earlier evangelists had refrained from doing, after he had heard that the tombs of Peter and Paul were being worshipped. Indeed, he regarded the tendency of contemporary Christians to 'grovel among tombs and pay them honour' as one of the more ridiculous Christian practices.

It's worth taking a look at the Martyrdom of Polycarp, an account of the execution of the second-century bishop of Smyrna in modern Turkey. St Polycarp, of whom St Irenaeus of Lyons was a disciple, had himself been a disciple of St John, and thus a younger contemporary of St Clement of Rome and St Ignatius of Antioch. He was burned at the stake for refusing to burn incense in honour of the Roman Emperor, and afterwards the Christians of Smyrna gathered up his bones which they treasured and used to call to mind his heroic example:
'And so we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter.' (Martyrdom of Polycarp, 18.2-3)
Relics, then, and the veneration of them, have been a feature of Christianity from earliest times, long before the Bible was definitively shaped into the form we currently have it. There's no denying that at times this practice got out of hand, and was abused, but while it may occasionally have veered towards idolatry, far more often it is best viewed simply as instances of ordinary people, believing absolutely in Jesus but too humble to approach him directly, reaching out to touch those who he himself had touched.

In case you're wondering, no, I didn't go to see the relics of St Thérèse, whether in Liverpool, in Salford, or in Manchester. I'm afraid I've been stuck here trying to work.

I missed them in Ireland a few years ago too. I think I was in Greece at the time. Mind, I often wonder how many people in Ireland did go to see them. Lots, surely, but hardly the three million I keep reading in the press nowadays. Three quarters of the population? Really? And yet I've never heard anyone once mention having gone to see them. I know we can be oddly quiet about things, but that quiet? I'm pretty sure that loads of people went to see the relics more than once, and that the count was a tad on the high side at every venue and at every mass, with people who'd queued to see the relics getting counted afresh if there were masses there too. It wouldn't take much to massively inflate the numbers.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that huge numbers of Irish people didn't go to see the relics last time out, just that I very much doubt that the numbers were quite so huge as are being made out. Mind, I'm an ancient military historian -- I always think big numbers are inflated, and I'm always suspicious of big multiples of three.

* Which, incidentally, is one of the reasons I'm very fond of the sentiment expressed, however scornfully, in the Monty Python song 'All Things Dull and Ugly'. He didn't just make the things that are bright and beautiful; he made everything, including a huge amount of ugly things, and he never made anything to last.


Neil said...

Multiples of three?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Yes. Three hundred, three thousand, three million. Whenever numbers like this pop up in any ancient writer you can usually assume they're code for 'lots'. There's quiet a good article on it by a fella called -- I think -- Speidel.