RELICS (Part III of III)
Editor’s Note: In Part I, we took a look at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, saw evidence of relics in the Old and New Testaments and explained the three different types of relics. In Part II, we showed how relics reiterate the Incarnation. Today, we will examine how relics reiterate the Resurrection. Here is the question we are looking at:
Dear Father John, The discussion about cremation and preserving the head of St. Catherine had me thinking. Why stop at the head? What about all the incorruptible bodies in the Church – St. Pio and St. Bernadette of Lourdes to name two – should they be on public display?? Is that a reverent ‘disposal’ of the body? Kindly clarify. With thanks.
Relics Reiterate the Resurrection
But salvation doesn’t end with the Incarnation; it ends with the Resurrection, and that’s the second reason the Church has always warmly encouraged the veneration of relics. Christ suffered, died, and was buried, and on the third day he rose from the dead, body and soul. And, body and soul, he ascended into heaven, and right now, at this very moment, he is sitting on his heavenly throne, fully human, with a real body. And his mother Mary, who was assumed into heaven, is right beside him, with a real body. And at the end of the world, when Christ comes again to bring history to its conclusion and to inaugurate the new heavens and the new earth, every person will be resurrected – some to eternal life and some to eternal death (cf. John 5:29). For those who died in friendship with Christ, their resurrected body will be glorified, just like Christ’s and Mary’s; it will no longer be subject to the limitations of space and time. This is not something we understand completely, in all its details. But it is a dogma of our faith, as we affirm every time we pray the Creed: “…I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
This is the faith of the Church, the truth that gives meaning to the sufferings and trials of earthly life, that enables us to find happiness amid them, knowing that this life is a swift passage through time, a chance to grow in love, but the next life is everlasting, the time to experience the fullness of love. In the Incarnation, God came to be with us in this beautiful but fallen world; in the Resurrection he takes us, body and soul, to be with him in a world of endless beauty and limitless life.
The devil also does his best to make us forget about the Resurrection. He much prefers that we try to arrange total fulfillment in this life, as he convinced Adam and Eve to try to do. And once again, relics help foil his plan. They powerfully evoke the Resurrection of the body, the end of the world and the beginning of eternity. When faithful Catholics kneel before an altar built over the mortal remains of a martyr or a saint, they are venerating fellow Christian warriors who suffered and sacrificed and died for the sake of the eternal Kingdom. In contemplating the relics of these heroes, of these older brothers and sisters in the faith, Catholics are reminded that they are only passing through this earth, that the best is yet to come, and that the future Kingdom is as real – indeed more real, than the passing kingdoms of this world. The obvious mortality of the relics, their lifelessness, at times their state of decay – the very characteristics that make those who have no faith in the eternal Kingdom turn away in disgust, nudge the believer’s heart and mind closer to heaven, where the saints now dwell.
A Beautiful and Dependable Bridge
Of course, Christians receive inspiration and strength from other sources as well, but amidst the myriad instruments of grace, relics hold a special place. Somehow, they bridge the gap between the world of sight and the world of faith in a particularly helpful way – at least they can do so. It is possible to exaggerate their worth – to superstitiously think of them as magical charms, for example, or to consider them holier than the sacraments – but the Church believes that the proper use of relics is worth risking their possible abuse. Even so, no one is required to practice devotion to relics; the Church respects our individual sensibilities.
The Incarnation and the Resurrection – nothing less is at stake when that puzzled tourist asks why St. Francis’ coffin has been irreversibly inserted into the stone pillar. And nothing less is at stake when the poor pilgrim chips off a piece of stone from the great basilica to bring it home. It will serve well as an unofficial third class relic, a powerful, tangible reminder that before he entered the blessed realm, St. Francis walked this earth, this same earth that Jesus walked and came to save and will renew, this same earth that you walk, with hopes of coming someday where Francis is today, and joining him forever when this world passes away.
Art: Relics, 3rd class, Torvindus, 12 February 2006, CCA-SA; The Resurrection, Carl Heinrich Bloch, PD-US copyright expired; both Wikimedia Commons.