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Jason Byassee


There's Life in Those Bones

Why Christians venerate relics.

If you pay attention during a trip to Paris it's hard to miss the bones. Even the ones that aren't there.

I don't mean the ones the guidebooks gush about—those stowed in Pere Lachaise cemetery and fawned over by Jim Morrison acolytes. I don't even mean the more interesting ones in the city's catacombs, removed there by Baron Haussmann as he brought modern sewers to a city previously known for the decomposing dead leaking into the water supply or bursting into neighboring basements.

I mean the bones and others relics in, or not in, church.

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. Roman Catholic churches still build altars literally and physically on top of relics of saints. Ask a Catholic friend. They won't likely remember which saint is under their altar, but they'll know one (or maybe more than one) is down there. What a delightfully literal reading of such passages as Revelation 6:9.

I didn't especially notice the bones at the treasury of Notre Dame. There I was more taken by the reliquaries built to house them—elaborate in their gold, silver, and jewels, appropriately stored in the church's "treasury." But the real treasure was the relic itself, not its casing. Medieval Christians built reliquaries in homage to the more precious thing inside. We notice the reliquary as a museum piece and more often disdain the thing itself. Notre Dame's treasury also displays the chasuble worn to celebrate mass there by John Paul II, the late and almost universally admired pontiff. Seeing that garment, I had a new sense of why Christians venerate relics. The physical contact with John Paul made the garment luminous, and I wanted to touch it, to give thanks to God, and would never put it on out of unworthiness. Our pagan age values some forms of bodily contact—remember what baseball fans used to pay for record home-run balls? How much more ought an embodied faith like ours?

I first noticed the bones of Paris at the Church of St. Severin, longtime parish home to students at the Sorbonne, when they were more known for attending church than for protesting various outrages and quoting Derrida. There the reliquary was humble enough that the bones stood out. The brass was unpolished, untended, in a chapel relatively unvisited; scraps of paper were taped onto the digits purporting to belong to one St. Ursula, who may have never existed. The church's English guidebook seemed underwhelmed at the very relic it explained, in poorly translated officialese: "It estimates that if all the relics in Europe were gathered they would weigh over 30 tonnes, doubting the authenticity of many." One can appreciate the mild dose of skepticism, if not the mangled English. If someone told me that wasn't really JPII's chasuble I'd be annoyed, outraged. Especially if I'd paid for it.

And one day people did pay for such treasures. St. Chapelle, once the personal royal chapel of the kings of France and now simply the most beautiful building in Christendom, was simply a setting for a jewel. The jewel itself was Christ's own crown of thorns, acquired from the Latin-imposed emperor of Constantinople for four times what King St. Louis paid to build St. Chapelle. Four times! And not a bad image for a would-be Christian king to contemplate. I saw that purported crown of thorns, more honored than many relics in the treasury at Notre Dame, but no longer trumpeted as the priceless treasure it was in the Middle Ages. I also got to see the Camisa, the garment purportedly worn by the Virgin Mary during the birth of Christ. In the 11th century it inspired the building of Chartres, the greatest church yet built in our world. Pilgrims approached on their knees, having walked thousands of miles. Now the Camisa displays there in one of the side chapels, with a plaque honoring it, but no sense that it's what the church is there for.

In the French Revolution, bones became important in a different way. Revolutionaries burst into the Cathedral of St. Denis, traditional burial place of French kings, broke open their elaborate tombs, dragged out their bones, and burned them in an open pit. Remember: this particular revolution was undertaken to celebrate the rise of reason against superstition. You can visit St. Denis now, as I did, but there are no bones there. The ashes of the burnt royal bones were returned to a crypt, and now the statuary stands guard over empty space.

The revolutionaries weren't the first to disturb holy graves (well, in the case of the kings of France, not so holy, but never mind). My forebears, the French Huguenots, desecrated the grave of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, a truly great mind and holy personage of the ancient church. But his was a venerated pilgrimage site in the era of the Reformation, so it had to go. I wonder if my forebears realized it was Irenaeus who helped slam the door shut on Gnosticism—the ancient heresy that God only seemed to take on a human body rather than really doing so. Reformers then unwittingly honored the Christological power of the body of a saint by dishonoring the grave of the one who first mastered that argument. I lost count—is that a double or triple irony?

And what of the 80,000 Jews deported under the Nazis and their Vichy collaborators during World War II? The city's elegant Holocaust memorial includes a site where, we're told, ashes gathered from the ovens at the camps in Poland have been mixed with dirt from Israel and buried. 11,000 of those murdered from Paris were children. How should a Christian experience such a memorial? Christian anti-Judaism at the very least helped grease the wheel for Nazi mass-murder. Then again, the museum itself celebrates cases of Christian pastors and priests and bishops who did the right thing and helped save Jews. Not enough, not all the time, but still they are honored as righteous Gentiles. France had some 300,000 Jews, meaning that many of them escaped Hitler's clutches, not a few helped by Christian friends. And I have no other name to pray in than that of the Jew, Jesus. Complicated, isn't it?

More bones in Paris that are there but not always properly venerated lie in the tomb of the unknown soldier, under Napoleon's grandiose Arc de Triomphe. The ringleader of student protestors in 1968 is purported to have put out the eternal flame during protests at the tomb by urinating on it. Thus a soldier from the war in which France suffered so, honored as a way of honoring all those lost with no named memorial, was dishonored by a young man fervently convinced that the kingdom of socialism was at hand.

Is it hard to keep all the bones straight?

Maybe that's as it should be. 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?

Authenticity also matters. Many of medieval Christendom's most precious relics were "found" when Helena, mother of Constantine, toddled over to the holy land in the 4th century and came back proclaiming the discovery of prized relics, like that crown of thorns. The market will sell you what you are willing to buy, as those 30 tonnes of bones attest. We can honor St. Irenaeus just as well by reading his work, imitating his world-and-body-affirming life, as we ever could by venerating his relics. If we lack the relics of a saint we do not lack the grace God has given to the whole church through that one.

Finally, we Protestants are the ones who most miss out by not venerating the dead. Sure there are Catholic excesses and exaggerations, as I have found them quick to point out. But the absence of any bone from our church, all the more as cremation and memorial services replace burials and funerals, leaves us in an inadvertently Gnostic place—one where we think our bodies are not ourselves somehow, where only souls go to heaven and we hope for no bodily resurrection on the last day.

And that leaves us 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.

Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, North Carolina, and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Duke Divinity School.

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