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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

Article Info

published: 12/20/04

Relics in Christianity



What are relics?

12th cent. French reliquary In Christianity, relics are the material remains of a deceased saint or martyr and objects closely associated with those remains.

Relics can be entire skeletons, but more usually they consist of a part such as a bone, hair or tooth. Pieces of clothing worn by the deceased saint or even an object that has come in contact with a relic is also considered a relic.

Relics have played an important role in Christian ritual since the earliest centuries of the church and were a major part of popular religion in the Middle Ages. Until 1969, relics were placed under the altar stones of all Roman Catholic churches. The veneration of relics was rejected by most of the Protestant Reformers and most Protestants today, but relics continue to play an important part in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.


History of the Veneration of Relics

Relics in the Bible

Although the veneration of relics was not explicitly practiced in the Christian Bible, supporters of the practice have seen support for honoring relics of the saints in the following passages:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the main's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21, NIV)

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding to 12 years came up behind him [Jesus] and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed." Jesus turned and saw her. "Take heart, daughter," he said, "your faith has healed you." And the woman was healed from that moment. (Matthew 9:20-22, NIV)

As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. (Mark 15:43, NIV)

People brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by... and all of them were healed. (Acts 5:15-16, NIV)

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. (Acts 19:11-12, NIV)

For Catholic and Orthodox Christians, these passages confirm their belief that God chooses to work miracles through material items associated with saints.

Relics in the Early Church

The Protestant church historian Adolf Harnack wrote of the veneration of relics in the early church:

No church doctor of repute restricted it. All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. The Church therefore would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichaeans. (History of Dogma, IV, 313).

The earliest surviving mention of relic veneration after the New Testament occurs in a work called The Martyrdom of Polycarp, dated to about 150 AD. In this account of the death of the leader who was believed to have known the Apostle John, his admirers in Smyrna wrote:

12th cent. French reliquary

We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.

St. Jerome eloquently explained the practice this way:

We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are. (Ad Riparium, XXII, 907)

In 787 AD, the Second Council of Nicea met to consider the iconoclastic controversy. The assembled bishops affirmed the veneration of icons, images and relics:

We accept the image of the honorable and life-giving Cross, and the holy relics of the saints; and we receive the holy and venerable images; we accept them and we embrace them, according to the ancient traditions of the Holy Catholic Church of God, that is to say our holy Fathers, who also received these things and established them in all the most holy Churches of God and in every place of His dominion. (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol 14, p. 541).

Catholic View of Relics

Throughout its history and still today, the Catholic Church has affirmed the usefulness and appropriateness of venerating relics of the saints. Important Catholic proclamations on relics include the following:

As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 13): "If a father's coat or ring, or anything else of that kind, is so much more cherished by his children, as love for one's parents is greater, in no way are the bodies themselves to be despised, which are much more intimately and closely united to us than any garment; for they belong to man's very nature." It is clear from this that he who has a certain affection for anyone, venerates whatever of his is left after his death, not only his body and the parts thereof, but even external things, such as his clothes, and such like. Now it is manifest that we should show honor to the saints of God, as being members of Christ, the children and friends of God, and our intercessors.
Wherefore in memory of them we ought to honor any relics of theirs in a fitting manner: principally their bodies, which were temples, and organs of the Holy Ghost dwelling and operating in them, and are destined to be likened to the body of Christ by the glory of the Resurrection. Hence God Himself fittingly honors such relics by working miracles at their presence. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica)

The Issue of Authenticity

A primary objection made to the veneration of relics is their dubious authenticity. Many supposed relics have been subject to a great deal of ridicule from non-Catholics, and even the Catholic Encyclopedia admits that, especially in the Middle Ages, "there was always a disposition to regard any human remains accidentally discovered near a church or in the catacombs as the body of a martyr," and "doubtful relics came to abound."

The Catholic Church's position, however, is not to take a position as to the authenticity of particular relics. The Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to explain:

Supposing it [a relic] to be in fact spurious, no dishonor is done to God by the continuance of an erro which has been handed down in good faith for many centuries. On the other hand the practical difficulty of pronouncing a final verdict upon the authenticity of these and similar relics must be patent to all....Further, devotions of ancient date depply rooted in the heart of the peasantry cannot be swept away without some measur eof scandal and popular disturbance.... Hence there is justification for the practice of the Holy See in allowing the cult of certain doubtful ancient relics to continue. Meanwhile, much has been done by quietly allowing many items in some of the most famous coolections of relics to drop out of sight....

Locations of Notable Relics

If you would like to see some relics for yourself, whether as a spiritual pilgrimage or a matter of historical interest, the locations of some of the most notable Christian relics are given below. (Keep in mind that the authenticity of some of these relics is in doubt. If that matters to you, read up before you go.) The location of the remains of some non-saints are also listed here, though it should be remembered that these would not be considered relics either by the Catholic Church (because the deceased was not a saint) or Protestants (because Protestants do not generally venerate relics).

Relics of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles
  • Jesus' baby blanket - Aachen, Germany
  • Jesus' foreskin ("Holy Prepuce") - Coulombs Abbey, France
  • Pieces of the true cross - many locations, but primarily Santo Toribio de Liébana, Spain

Relics of Church Fathers

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References
  • John Bowker, ed., "Relics." Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions (Oxford UP, 2000), p. 482.
  • "Relics." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XII (Robert Appleton Company, 1911).
  • "Objects." Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Encyclopaedia Britannica Premium Service, 2004).
  • "Relics." Catholic Answers. 2004. <http://www.catholic.com/library/relics.asp>