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Jason Byassee

There's Life in Those Bones

Why Christians venerate relics.

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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.

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