Saints On Display

by Matt Sitman

Relic Display

Jason Byassee pens a Protestant appreciation of relics, or the bones and possessions of Christian saints, arguing that to reject them puts you “dangerously far away from the presence of one whose resurrection was so unbearably physical that it will draw our bodies from their graves too one day”:

The church in the Middle Ages built elaborate reliquaries for bones, clothes, and other physical objects related to the bodies of the saints. The reason was simple: saints are those on whom God has provided an especially gracious dose of holiness. In a faith like ours that is built on the incarnation, holiness comes not despite but through the physical body. The great Peter Brown’s book on this, The Cult of the Saints, shows that ancient Christians’ veneration of bodies came in marked contrast to their pagan and Jewish neighbors. Both rival groups viewed the dead as unclean in a way that was contagious for those who came in contact with them. Christians, on the other hand, viewed the saints as holy and their dead bodies or earthly possessions (see here Acts 19:12) as making others holy. So rather than flee cemeteries, we Christians built churches on top of them.

He continues:

To some extent, we are our bones. What we do with the bones of those before us shows who we are. We shouldn’t treat them like talismans, as though independent of our own pursuit of biblical holiness they can magically whisk us into heaven. Neither should we denigrate them. We should honor them, even, to use ancient Christian language, venerate them. I remember seeing the top-hat of President Lincoln in his museum in Springfield, Illinois, with two fingermarks worn clean where he used to doff the thing. I felt my heart bow. How much more in the presence of the body of a holy one?

(Image by Ramón Cutanda López.)