It was midday on day two of a spiritual retreat at an old Benedictine abbey in rural Normandy. I was 23 years old and serving as a Southern Baptist missionary in Paris. I was praying silently in the church, and the sun shone brilliantly through the clear windows of the abbey church. As I finished my prayers, I decided to explore the interior of the church. As I walked toward across the transept toward the north chapel, the sunlight pointed my gaze to a small box on the wall with a clear front. As I got closer, much to my horror, it became clear that there was a human skull on display. Later, one of the monks explained that the skull belonged to Saint Wandrille, the monk who founded the abbey in the seventh century.
The skull was a relic.
The veneration of relics – both the human remains and the personal effects of saints – is deeply rooted in the earliest ages of Christianity, and in fact, predates the formal canonization of the New Testament. The bodies of early Christian martyrs were venerated by the church, including the remains of Ignatius and Polycarp, who were martyred in the second century. The Eucharist was celebrated over the tombs of Christian martyrs in the catacombs of Rome in the fourth century. The Second Council of Nicea in 787 A.D. affirmed the veneration of relics, clarifying that while God alone is worshipped, the saints – including their relics – are venerated. We do not worship the saints, we only honor and revere them. And we honor and revere them because, by their faithful example and their continued prayers, they lead us further into holiness and a closer union with God.
At the time I encountered the skull of St. Wandrille, my Protestant instinct was to brush aside the superstitious notion of venerating the bones of dead people in the same way I brushed aside the Eastern notion of venerating icons. But like many things the Protestant Reformers rejected as a result of medieval abuse and superstition, I began to wonder whether the baby had been thrown out with the bathwater.
The underlying principle behind the veneration of relics is the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. As one commentator puts it,
"In a nutshell, because God Himself was made Man for our sake and was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary to redeem and divinize human nature, and because the glorified human nature of the Risen Lord communicates the Holy Ghost to the members of the redeemed human family, the communion of saints, and thus makes the bodies of the Saints to be temples, dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, the bodies of those who are acknowledged to have possessed heroic sanctity in this life are honored, venerated as holy possessions of God and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit. A sober, healthy, balanced, sane, biblical theology of the Saints and of their earthly Relics is intensely incarnational and sacramental - the flesh is honored as the vehicle of the Spirit. By honoring the bodies of the Saints, and by honoring their holy Images, we are taught to honor each other and to recognize in the human body, redeemed and sanctified in Christ, the locus of the Spirit of God."
As we quickly approach the mystery of the incarnation of God at Christmas, it is fitting that we bless new reliquaries to house the relics of two saints of the church this Sunday: St. Cecilia and St. Theresa of the Little Flower. St. Cecilia was a third century martyr now regarded as the patroness of music, and St. Teresa of the Little Flower was a late nineteenth-century French nun who lovingly pursued holiness in ordinary life. They will fit in nicely with the image of the nine other female saints on the front panel of the high altar.
Like most first-class relics, there are very small pieces of the saint's bone encased in a small container with glass on one side and removable metal back. When the metal back is removed, there is a wax seal placed by the bishop who attested to the relic’s authenticity. We will display them on the altar during most seasons of the church year.
Relics remind us that our faith is gritty and earthy, and that God chose to enter into the grittiness of this world through human flesh and blood. Our veneration of relics is an outpouring of our belief in the resurrection of the body, and makes tangible the prayer requests we bring to the saints in heaven in the hopes that they pray for us to the Father.
We will bless the reliquaries on Sunday during the 10:00 Mass, and will offer the faithful a moment to venerate the sacred relics of these two holy women after the service has concluded. Saints Cecilia and Theresa, pray for us!
Fr. Charles Everson's love for music and liturgy led him to a suburban parish as a simple chorister, and as of late, to St. Mary's as a priest. He feels called to share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world in desperate need of hope and reconciliation.