We are approaching Easter Sunday this weekend. Thinking about the meaning of this holiday for many, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the many religious relics of the passion always come to my mind. A religious relic is either the physical remains (whole or in part) or personal effect of a venerated person used as a tangible memorial. Think of it as a souvenir of sorts.
Growing up in Catholic school I used to imagine strange and spooky relics hidden in the nooks of my school or our church. The many alcoves and hidden areas (that grown ups said were so you could pray in private, uh-huh) reinforced my morbid imagination.
The Shroud of Turin is probably the most recognized relic related to the resurrection. The centuries old linen clothe has the image of a man, apparently crucified, visibly impressed on it. Many believe that man is Jesus of Nazareth and the power of the resurrection burned his likeness into the burial clothe. The Shroud has been the subject of intense and detailed study over the years. Carbon dating from 1988 and 2013 have contradicting results, the later test putting the age of the clothe to around the time that historians believe Jesus was crucified. Is it a forgery, a piece of artwork, or the real deal? I admit when I look at pictures of the Shroud of Turin it leaves me awestruck.
In 2013 archeologist excavating the ancient Balatlar Church in Turkey found a stone chest that may contain a piece of wood from the cross Christ died on. There are many reliquaries in various churches across Europe that claim to contain actual pieces of the cross. Pieces of this relic have made it across the ocean to the Americas, as well. There is a church in Florida that not only has a piece of the cross but a part of the table that the Last Supper was eaten from. A more popular culture reference, in the documentary My Amityville Horror, demonologist Lorraine Warren produces a relic she says is a splinter from the cross of Christ.
The crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head while he was mocked before his death is housed at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and is displayed throughout the year. While it looks like it could be authentic it has never been officially authenticated.
Those relics from the passion and resurrection are interesting and even beautiful. However, there are many relics that are rather strange and equally interesting as disturbing.
- Saint Catherine of Siena – This devoted young woman who by her own description, experienced a “mythical marriage” with Jesus that has been the subject of many works of art and writings. She helped the poor and sick and even influenced politics. She died in Rome in 1380 at only 33. Blessed Raymond of Capua, Saint Catherine’s former spiritual director, sent the head back to Siena so a part of her could be in her home town. The mummified head is still housed today at the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico in Italy.
- John the Baptist – John had been telling King Herod that it was not cool that he had his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias used her daughter to ask for John’s head on a silver plate, can you say Sociopath? Legend says that his severed head was passed from person to person, place to place and the grace coming from the head was able to heal people. Where it is today is a matter of contention. Muslims believe his head is inside the Umayyad Mosque in Syria, while Christians believe it is on display in Rome, buried in Turkey or in France’s Amiens Cathedral.
- St. Januarius – Legend says he was beheaded in 305 C.E. for hiding fellow Christians during a persecution by Emperor Diocietian. Just after his death a woman saved some of his blood, the now dried blood is stored in two hermetically sealed ampoules. However, three times a year thousands come to Naples Cathedral to witness as the dried blood becomes liquifed.
- St. Lawrence – He was martyred in 258 C.E. by being roasted alive on a large grill. Some of his blood was caught and like St. Januarius the centuries old dried blood turns to liquid in full-view of the worshippers.
- Pope John Paul II – There are three known containers of his blood. One is a not a vial of blood but a piece of fabric stained with his blood after he was shot in 1981. Just this year, thieves broke into the remote mountain church of San Pietro della Lenca in Italy and stole the relic. It has since been recovered and returned to the church. Talk about bad mojo.
The Incorruptibles –
Basically, this is when the dead body of a saint shows no sign of decomposition, some for over a thousand years! Unlike a mummy their skin remains supple looking. Catholics believe this to be a miracle and is a sign of the deceased holiness.
Various Body Parts –
- Finger of St. Thomas – Thomas said he would not believe that Christ had risen unless he could put his finger in the wounds from the crucifixion, a risen Christ obliged. The Church of Santa Croce in Rome has the a preserved finger alleged to be the very one Thomas put into Christ’s wounds.
- Tongue of St. Anthony – 750 years ago the tongue of St. Anthony was found to be an incorruptible relic. Perhaps because of his skilled preaching. Westminster Cathedral in Britain houses a piece of dried flesh and some facial skin said to be the tongue.
The Weirdest –
- The Holy Foreskin – Supposedly when young Jesus was circumcised his foreskin was saved. Many churches claimed to have the relic but by the end of the 18th century these had been discredit but rumors kept circulating. Considered to be the only flesh of Jesus left on the earth you can see why some believers would like to possess it. In the Italian village of Calcata a reliquary containing what is reported to be the true Holy Prepuce was paraded annually until thieves stole it. National Geographic produced a documentary The Quest for the Holy Foreskin to search for any trace of the afore mentioned relic.
Relics are not exclusively Catholic, many religions and belief systems contain them. The faithful find them reassuring to their faith. Skeptics point out that many have been proven as fake. One very pious woman I know said it didn’t matter if they are real or fake, if it got people thinking about Jesus it was enough. However, some point out that people become too focused on the relic and put their adoration in a very wrong direction. Then there are those who find the arena of relics to be just plain morbid and bizarre. It does seem terribly strange but how many of us have kept a funeral card or a flower from funeral flowers of a loved one? Perhaps relics are just an extreme version of that. At any rate they are weird and you know how I like that.
For those readers who celebrate Easter, have a most excellent holiday and those who don’t have a most excellent Sunday. Until next time, Never Turn Off the Lights.