Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Venerating Holy Relics - I Think I Get It Now

(Reprinted from Catholic by Grace column, published in 2007)

You would think, after being reconciled to Mother Church for two years, I would calmly settle into the rhythm of things and quietly get on with life. But, I still get excited about the Catholic faith, and I find myself talking to anyone that will listen to me.

Sometimes, as I’m rattling on about this new love of mine, I realize I might as well talk to some daffodils or my car engine. I see their eyes glaze over. They’re thinking, “There she goes again.” And I wonder how long will the veil cover their eyes? Then the humbling thought comes. What wonderful thing does the veil still obscure for me?

There really isn’t much to sort out anymore. I’ve been through all the tough stuff. Now, it’s mostly learning about the saints and the beauty of papal encyclicals. But there are still a few things that will take time to understand fully. Relics are one of those things. I must admit that I still have residual Protestant confusion and perhaps even slight aversion when it comes to the idea of venerating another person’s remains.

And I know that I must pray for deeper understanding.

It really isn’t all that difficult, I tell myself. And I walk to the box where I still keep my father’s things, and I hold the hair brush and touch the short strands of hair embedded in the bristles. I know I can’t part with it, because when I hold that brush, I still feel close to him. No, I don’t just “feel” close to him; I am close to him. And that closeness makes me remember that I can ask for his prayers and intercessions.

When I consider the physical reminders of my father’s life and the blessing that comes with having those things near me, I get a glimpse into one more Catholic teaching that is really quite beautiful and completely reasonable. And I realize, as with sorting out all the other Catholic teachings, the problem is me.

And lest I think the practice of venerating relics is something out of the Middle Ages, I have only to read a book called The Faith of the Early Fathers by William A. Jurgens which contains an excerpt describing the martyrdom of St. Ignatius on December 20, 107 A.D.

[6, 5]
Only the harder parts of his holy relics were left, and these were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church, on account of the grace which was in the martyr (70).

And then I contemplate an excerpt on the martyrdom of St. Polycarp in a letter from the Church at Smyrna. The original document is over eighteen hundred years old and leaves no room for doubt about how the Early Church felt about holy relics.

[17, 3]
Then, at last, we took up his bones, more precious than costly gems and finer than gold, and put them in a suitable place. The Lord will permit us, when we are able, to assemble there in joy and gladness; and to celebrate the birthday of this martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already engaged in the contest, and for the practice and training of those who have yet to fight (81).

Moreover, the practice of venerating holy relics didn’t start in the First Century. It is as old as God’s Chosen People. When the Israelites were delivered from slavery or exile, they carried with them the remains of their beloved fathers. From ancient times, we have recognized something very sacred about holy relics. Something that challenges us, inspires us, and drives us to fight the good fight and gain the eternal reward. But it doesn’t end there. God’s People have always known that the holy relics of beloved fathers carry with them the blessing of Almighty God!

It is not so strange after all, I realize. In fact, it is altogether sacred and beautiful.
Recently, I read a book entitled Four Witnesses by Rod Bennett. I recommend it highly to any convert who has struggled with the practice of venerating holy relics. For me, it was a gift of grace that lifted the veil more completely from my eyes.

On June 29, we will commemorate the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul. On this day, I will venerate the holy remains of our beloved saints. I will be challenged, inspired, and driven to fight the good fight. Oh, one more thing. I will receive the blessing that comes from embracing this timeless Judeo-Christian practice.


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