Would You Like an Arm Bone With That?
Over the summer, my husband and I had the opportunity to visit Europe, and one of our stops was Rome. Rome is the biggest city I have ever been to, and I found it both overwhelming and intriguing. One of the most challenging aspects of Rome was our visits to several Catholic churches, including St. Peter’s Basilica. As a good Protestant, I expected to be horrified by the expense of the churches—many of which seemed a little ironic, as their materials were often pillaged from Roman palaces and pagan temples. Surprising to me, however, was that the Roman Catholic “relics” were what gave me pause for thought.
At St. Peter’s Basilica, which was amazing, the pre-recorded audio guide nestled in my ear told me that certain relics were contained within the four main pillars. The narrator mentioned something about a shroud, a chunk of the spear that was stuck into Jesus’ side, a piece of the One True Cross, and something else about St. Andrew’s head. I thought I misheard the weird head part, and then raised an eyebrow at my electronic narrator, “Really,” I thought, “Emperor Constantine’s mother happened to be the person who found the One True Cross? I’m so sure.” I shook my head at Catholics and their fascination with “magical” things.
After St. Peter’s (which for the record, I enjoyed), we visited several other churches. This was when my first shock set in. We were at the Church of St. So-and-So. (I mean no disrespect in calling him this. I wish I could remember his name, but I honestly cannot.) A historical pamphlet explained that a “relic” of St. So-and-So was in the church. “Interesting,” I thought, “They seem to believe that they have a piece of his robe or something.” I walked over to a side chapel in the church, and started at the sight of a skull and arm bone framed in a small glass case. It read: “The relic of St. So-and-So.” I almost fell over. “When a church is named after a saint or has their relic, it might mean that they have a chunk of their dismembered body?!?!”
In Europe, it seemed that bodies were not safely tucked underground.
I stared at the skull, then quickly looked around to make sure no one saw me gawking. I sort of backed away, probably too casually, grabbed my husband and edged toward the door. I had seen preserved Popes at St. Peter’s, but I also knew of various historical leaders who were embalmed and on display; so the glass-case-with-a-Pope seemed odd but I chalked it up as an old-fashioned custom. Seeing St. So-and-So’s relic, however, made me stop in my tracks.
I felt weird about the word “relic,” which I would normally associate with a shard of ancient pottery. I wouldn’t ever correspond a “relic” to a human person. It felt even more bizarre to view a relic as evidence that an eternal creature who had experienced special, God-given, supernatural abilities had existed—and still did in the afterlife. In the Roman Catholic mind, St. So-and-So’s skull and arm bone are physical connections to a supernatural reality. Relics facilitate the Catholic worshiper to integrate the physical world into her theology. I also reacted to the Roman Catholic belief that supernatural power could potentially be transmitted through relics—be they body parts, or pieces of metal or wood. If I touched, or merely was in the physical presence of, St. So-and-So’s arm bone, God might use it to work in my life? It sounded kind of gross to me, but I could not entirely blow it off for two reasons.
First, the Bible records the brief story of a dead man’s body accidentally touching Elisha’s bones and then coming back to life (2 Kings).
Not sure what to do with that. We also have accounts in Acts of Paul’s “kerchiefs and aprons” healing the sick (Acts 19). These two passages deal with a holy person’s remains and objects belonging to a person of spiritual authority, and both are associated with supernatural occurrences. These passages, taken at face value, suggest that maybe Catholic relics have a little support beyond superstition.
Second, and this seems obvious, but as an orthodox Christian I have to believe that God actually works through the physical world. I believe that Jesus Christ (who is God) came to earth incarnated into human flesh and lived, healed, taught, died and was resurrected. This blog has no intention of making any sort of theological statement about relics, beyond stating that they helped me think about the intersection of the supernatural with the physical world. In many ways, for many reasons, Western Protestantism sometimes facilitates Christians toward expressions of faith that focus on individual, internal experiences. I feel things, I pray things inside my head, I read my Bible. I believe in Jesus. I sing songs about my full-commitment to Christ, about how he is “all I want,” and then do things utterly contradictory to what I sang, without even thinking about the promises I made earlier, because it seems like the words and feelings only exist in my mind, intangible and effervescent.
We conveniently separate the outside world from our internal reality (thanks, Descartes). The way we practice worship does not always facilitate our acknowledgement of God’s actual involvement in our world.
What I have grown to appreciate about the Catholics is their effort to connect theology to actual things and actual events which facilitates the worshiper’s integration of the (seemingly intangible) spiritual with the physical world. They remind us that our bodies came from the dirt and that God breathed His own breath into us.
We forget that Jesus is God but that on earth he was also sometimes stinky, tired or laughing. The doctrine of relics reminded me that Christ’s incarnation beckons us to sit and wonder how an infinite God could put on human flesh and then accomplish the redemption of the world through such a limited medium.