Saturday, November 4, 2017

Nov V: Sacrum Reliquiarum

One part of ancient Christianity that always seems to broach the realm of belief and enter into the distant world of superstition, at least to those not in Communion with an ancient metropolitan bishop, is the keeping and cherishing of relics. And why should we keep them? Relics—literally "left over" things—are what remains of a decomposed body after death, itself a punishment for our transgressions and those of Adam. It all has a macabre odor to it, does it not?

To the contrary, there is little less macabre, less superstitious than relics. Unlike the "Miracle of the Mass", we are not obliged to believe anything particularly supernatural is happening with a relic at a given moment. In fact, unlike the symbolism and realism of the Sacraments, relics are nothing more than what they appear to be. Some of the most famous relics in Latin Christianity have no widespread miracles associated with them whatsoever. The Shroud of Turin's existence may well be a miracle, but it is not the water of Lourdes and it did not make the Sun dance in the sky. It is simply a burial cloth with the image of God-made-Man burned onto it, stained with a few bits of His Blood.

The most esteemed relics in Latin Christendom prior to the voyage of the Shroud to Italy during the Crusades were the bones of Saint Peter. All Christendom knew where the Prince of the Apostle was buried and none bothered to dig him up. Archaeology suggests the altar and shrine adjoining the Saint's tomb was built c.150; his bones were wrapped in royal purple, presumably during the the construction of the old Vatican Basilica, during the age of Constantine and were left undisturbed until excavations during the pontificate of Pius XII. Except for a brief period after the martyrdom and canonization of St. Thomas Becket, when Canterbury boomed as a destination, Saint Peter's has always been the main point of pilgrimage in the Western world. France and England intentionally modeled their liturgical texts after those not of the Roman bishopric, but specifically those of the Petrine basilica so that they might be in some way close to Peter himself. Pilgrims made trips across Europe on foot, risking diseases and highwaymen, to gain indulgences for the dead or for the remission of their own sins at the tomb of the Apostle, a man who knew the Son of God and gazed at His face. Far be relics from misplaced superstition, they are among the firmer testaments to the on-going presence of Christ in the Church and the fleshly reality of His revelation.

This last point did not make much of an impression on this writer when he visited Rome six years ago—how I have aged. This point only became as clear as it is now during a detour to San Giovanni Rotundo, which I thought in my youthful ignorance must have alluded to some local "Saint John the Fat." We did not visit Padre Pio's tomb in the monstrously modern church, but we did tour his monastery and see his cell, preserved as it was the day he died. His cell was full of third class relics: a fly swatter, deodorant,a toothbrush, and some cough drops. These are all relics really need be: proof for we living on Earth that those who ran the course in faith did indeed live in the same world we do with the same troubles and God gave them the "abundance of mercy for which we yearn" (cf. collect of the Octave).

Cognizant of these realities various parts of the Church have observed feasts for the relics present in a given parish or cathedral. Salisbury observed its feast in July. Since Pius X, the local Church in Rome has, fittingly, observed the feast in proximity to All Saints' Day. Like the Sarum rite, the Roman Mass for the day largely reflects a Common with some particular orations recalling the triumphs of the Saints, in contrast to the general emphasis purely on suffering and intercession. The Sarum Mass lesson comes from Ecclesiasticus 44:
"But these were men of mercy, whose godly deeds have not failed. Good things continue with their seed. Their posterity are a holy inheritance and their seed hath stood in the covenants. And their children for their sakes remain for ever; their seed and their glory shall not be foresaken. Their bodies are buried in peace, and their name liveth unto generation and generation. Let the people shew forth their wisdom, and the church declare their praise."
The continuity between the living and dead reflects the late medieval English piety in which this Mass came to be, an understanding of the saints as real people, friends of God to whom honor was owed and who in turned owed their prayers for those doing homage on earth. The Roman liturgy continues the octave theme by reiterating the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount for the Gospel.

A happy All Saints to all readers aspiring to join them.

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