The veneration of Relics

  • Question 165, from Pauline, United Kingdom
    What does the Bible say about the Roman Catholic practice of keeping Relics?

    The veneration of the remains of ‘saints’, or other holy objects, is said to have been part of Christian tradition since the martyrdom of Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, in 156AD, when members of Polycarp’s church reportedly gathered up his remains. Since that time officially sanctioned relics have been regarded in some churches as having healing or mystical properties, as they provide a connection between the worshipper and the saint who is in the presence of God.

    Critics of the veneration of Relics cite possible pagan origins for the practice. For example, the Holy Grail legends are believed to be linked to the ancient Celtic myth of the magical cauldron of Bran that could restore dead warriors to life. Another criticism stems from the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality, with Relics regarded as wayward superstition with little verifiable basis.

    It does appear that the earliest forms of Christianity venerated the memories of the Apostles, and preserved certain burial sites associated with them. However the ‘Relic industry’ really developed through the influence of the Emperor Constantine’s mother, the Empress Helen (or Helena).

    After Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Empress Helen toured Palestine, founding churches on holy sites identified by local Christians. Churches she reputedly founded include the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that claims to be built over the empty tomb that Jesus was laid in, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is built over a small cave, said to be Jesus’ birth-place.

    Helen allegedly also believed she had found the remains of the ‘True Cross’, fragments of which have been displayed in numerous different churches, which was perhaps the first internationally known ‘relic’ of its kind. Apparently all three crosses from Golgotha were recovered, with Jesus’ cross standing out because it still had the placard attached the proclaimed him the king of the Jews.

    An interesting, although probably apocryphal, detail in the story, has the cross was buried beneath a Roman temple to Venus, which was demolished in the search for it. This illustrates the occasionally violent transition of the Roman Empire to Christianity, and may also imply pagan links to relic worship.

    The practice of moving relics became popular in medieval times, when notable saints had their remains transferred from church to church, often to increase the status of a particular church or cathedral. Although the Protestant reformers, particularly in the Calvinist Reformed and Puritan traditions, firmly rejected the use of Relics in worship, the practice remains strong in Catholic and Orthodox churches, and some of the other very old traditions.

    Biblical authority for this practice is scant, but there is one story that perhaps illustrates the latent power of the remains of prophets and holy men. In 2 Kings chapter 13, verse 21, a story is told of a young man who was hastily buried in the prophet Elisha’s tomb, and promptly returned to life after coming into contact with the prophets bones.

    That is an interesting story, given that touching human bones or a grave made an Israelite ritually unclean under the Law of Moses (See Numbers chapter 19, verse 16). This injunction against touching a tomb was still in force in the first century AD, giving added bite to Jesus’ insults to the Pharisees, when he compared them to “whitewashed tombs… full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean.” (Matthew chapter 23, verse 27)

    The Jewish religious aversion to dead bodies is an indicator that the veneration of relics was introduced into Christianity from other cultural sources, building on myths that were long-established among the people who would later adopt Christianity.

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  • 1 comment

    1. Nige D Aug 19

      OK – so this is a bone thing, right?

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