Jason Byassee

There's Life in Those Bones

Why Christians venerate relics.

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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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