Sunday, February 19, 2017

Jottings on Relics

I decided to head off to the Maronite Catholic church here last night for the vigil Mass because, due to meeting with other people and the quirks of their schedule, it would have been difficult to attend Mass on Sunday on the day. It's one of the Commemoration Sundays, Sunday of the Faithful Departed, on the Maronite calendar. It was rather different from usual because, unbeknownst to me, yesterday the parish was hosting the relics of St. Anthony of Padua. Anthony, one of the most popular Franciscan saints, was born Fernando Martins de Bulhões in Lisbon in about 1195, and died in Padua in 1231; he was canonized within a year of his death and named Doctor of the Church by Pius XII in 1946. The relics in question were a bit of cheek and a rib, obtained, I believe when his tomb was opened in 1983.

The modern West is very squeamish about death. We don't generally sit wake on bodies, and we don't generally bury our own dead; we handle it all in as sanitized a manner as we can, but our sanitizing is not purely hygienic but also an emotional sanitizing as well. It is all tucked away so that, unless you are a mortician or in some other field that works in corpses, you rarely have to come face-to-face with it, and even then only under very limited, highly ritualized conditions. It would all be set aside completely were it not for the human needs for closure and for a last goodbye. But this is not the normal state of things for human beings; it takes an elaborate artificial apparatus to manage it, one built up over a long period of time.

(It's perhaps worth noting that in some places the current customs are a receding of delicacy on the matter. Jane Austen never went to a funeral in her life. Only men went to funerals in much of Regency England. It's not uncommon for people today on being told this to deplore the fact that Jane did not get to 'see her sister one last time', but to Regency ears this would have been a grotesque and gruesome notion, and our practice of doing it rather ghoulish. Even men did not go to funerals to see people 'one last time'; they went because someone had to make sure the corpse was properly buried.)

A corpse is a sign of a person; and when the person lost their way, it is a sign of lost potential, and when they excelled, it is a sign of excellence. And, given Christian doctrine, it may also be a sign of victory.

The early Christians often met in cemeteries, near the graves of those who were killed for the faith. The prayers naturally tended toward commemoration of the martyrs. The shrines that grew up were associated with their graves. The altar might literally be the marker for the tomb. Thus grew up the practice of giving churches titular saints: the church of Sant'Agnese fuori le mura, for instance, was literally the meeting-place associated with the catacombs of St. Agnes outside the city walls, and later versions of the church always situated it so that the remains of St. Agnes would be under the altar. As Christianity grew, churches often began to be situated far from where any martyrs died; relics would be placed in their altars, and the church get the name from them -- the churches, after all, were built to house the altars. And the altars were the victory-monuments of the martyrs, whose very deaths were prayers, and whose very bodies are part of the prayer of the Church.

At the same time, there were always people who lived lives showing the same faith as the martyrs who were technically not matyred; they began to be integrated in the same way. To say that, say, Anthony of Padua, who was not a martyr, is not just a saint (which anyone may be) but canonized as a saint, is to say that the Church in its prayer recognizes that, despite not being a martyr, his faith was the same faith and his devotion to it analogous to theirs. It is as much as to say: He, too, in a public way participated to some degree in the victory of the martyrs; he too marks an altar as suitable to be the throne of God in the liturgy.

It is an old principle: who does not have the faith of the martyrs, does not have the faith. But this requires looking squarely at the fact of death, so gruesomely all-victorious, and recognizing that, if the Christian faith is right, we may be the ones victorious over it, as the martyrs and saints have shown. O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?

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