Friday, December 10, 2010

Relics of Saints and the Early Church

If anything is distinctive of the devotional practices of the Catholic Church in relation to those of evangelicals, it's the Church's practices surrounding relics.

Relics are the remains of those recognized as saints, whether it be a part of their body or something they owned*. Catholics carefully preserve relics, give a great deal of honor to relics, and even sometimes claim miracles in connection with relics. Catholic say that they are honoring Jesus' servants and in doing so are really honoring Jesus. But to evangelicals, the whole practice seems at best very strange and at worst idolatrous. It would be unsurprising for an evangelical to dismiss the whole thing as just another late medieval corruption of the Catholic Church.

Such an assumption, however, would be wrong. In actuality, the practice comes from the Holy Scriptures and from the early Church.

First, here is an example from the Holy Scriptures in which God works a miracle through the dead remains of one of his holy servants:

2 Kings 13.20-22:
Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.

Next, here are two examples from the Holy Scriptures in which God works through objects belonging to holy people (in the first case, belonging to the most Holy One, Jesus our Lord):

Mark 5.27-29:
When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, because she thought, “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering.

Acts 19.11-12:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Regarding the practice of preserving and honoring relics, here are two (of many) records of what the early Church believed:

Martyrdom of Polycarp**, 17; events took place A.D. 155, written soon after:
[After Bishop Polycarp was martyed in a Roman stadium] But when the adversary of the race of the righteous, the envious, malicious, and wicked one, perceived the impressive nature of his martyrdom, and [considered] the blameless life he had led from the beginning, and how he was now crowned with the wreath of immortality, having beyond dispute received his reward, he did his utmost that not the least memorial of him should be taken away by us, although many desired to do this, and to become possessors of his holy flesh. For this end he suggested it to Nicetes, the father of Herod and brother of Alce, to go and entreat the governor not to give up his body to be buried, lest, said he, forsaking Him that was crucified, they begin to worship this one. This he said...being ignorant of this, that it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners ), nor to worship any other. For Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!

Notice that it is the pagan Roman official, at the suggestion of the Devil, who doesn't want the Christians to take relics because the Christians might end up worshiping Polycarp instead of Jesus. And it is the Christians who, while fully conscious of the fact they worship God alone, still honor His servants by honoring their relics, which is the stance of Catholics today, 1900 years later.

St Jerome, Letter 109, 1; written ~A.D. 400:
We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not [just] the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says:— he that receives you receives me."

The Catholic practices surrounding relics was not a later invention of the Catholic Church. It is based on the Bible and has been passed on from the early Church.

*These are called first and second class relics respectively. Third class relics, unmentioned here, are objects that have been touched to a first or second class relics (usually something like a prayer card).

**Author unknown


  1. Re 2Kings, Mark & Acts, we act all those out in my 6th grade class as a prelude to discussing saints, relics, and the Resurrection of the Body. I have a rag and a chicken bone among my props for Acts & 2Kings, and just use my jacket for Mark. Each year I also borrow some first-class relics from a friend and let the kids have a look.

  2. Isn't there a danger to seek power in the object itself rather than in He who makes the object powerful? Should devotion to relics be an important part of the faith, or just a "helper"?

  3. Hey Rachel,
    You asked if there is danger to see power in the object rather than in God. I'd say that of course that can be a temptation. Whether relics should be an important part of the faith, we see that relics have been apart of the practice of the people of God for a very long time and has been greatly commended by the Church, so I think it's a good thing. As far as I understand, we venerate relics of saints as parts of the Body of Christ

  4. Thanks, Brantly! I had never seen it that way. It's really... weird and interesting at the same time.
    If Catholics venerate relics of saints as parts of the Body of Christ, would they venerate the actual bodies of saints that are still alive on earth? (let's say they know someone who is very holy)

  5. Hey Rachel,

    Great question. I talked to a friend about it, and our conclusion was that yes, we can/should honor saintly people in their earthly lives. A difference would be that we can't be certain of a person's saintliness in this life, whereas we are certain that a saint is in heaven if he/she is a canonized saint.