A few years ago, I had the good fortune to find myself at the Basilica of San Marco, in Venice. A rococo fantasy of white stone, delicate tracery, and soaring domes, it seems to float above the ground. Within, golden mosaics evoke an unearthly sensation, as if this is the Holy of Holies, the place one comes to see God face to face.
I was admiring the mosaics when I approached the High Altar and found myself approaching a thick glass panel laid into the floor. Underneath it, supposedly, lay the bones of St. Mark the Evangelist, stolen from Alexandria in the ninth century by two Venetian merchants, who smuggled them out in a barrel of pickled pork and brought them to Venice to be revered.
Now, I am the greatest of skeptics when it comes to relics. Raised on Chaucer’s Pardoner with his pig bones, I tend to assume (unless the bones are both recent and local) that whatever shards of wood or bone appear in those elaborate gold settings made by the faithful are most likely to be relics, not of saints, but of charlatans, who peddled ordinary things to credulous believers, spinning leaden lies into pockets full of gold.
But this time was different. As I approached the tomb, I found myself wondering, What if it were true? What if, just this once, someone had managed to get the right bones? What if I were six inches from a hand that had touched the hand of Christ, that had known his holy face in the flesh, been comforted by being held against Christ’s shoulder? What would that mean to me, now?
We who are heirs of the Reformation can be so deeply predisposed to doubt. We test each hypothesis, examine every faith claim, and, by and large, we are tight to do so. God wants our minds as well as our hearts, and it would be difficult indeed to place deep trust into One we cannot begin to understand. And yet, we also lose something, if our tendency to challenge all faith claims prevents us from seeking the simple human truth of Christ. Sometimes, often even, Christ is found not in rigorous inquiry, but in simplicity and in trust.
The reality is that I have never touched a hand that was not shaped by the hand of God. I have never been held against the shoulder of Christ, but I am carried in his heart every day. And while I have never seen Christ’s face, I see it in his people, every person I meet, if only I have eyes to see.
There are times when I wish that were different, that I could sit at his feet and hear his earthly voice and know what he was like, how he laughed and what made him weep. On those times, I must remember his words to Thomas: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)