Years ago, in my undergrad agnostic phase, I ran across a book debunking the Roman Catholic Church’s veneration of relics of the saints. Ideally, each church will have a relic, often something as small as a fragment of a finger bone. One can scarcely imagine the record keeping involved in inventorying and distributing such items through the centuries. The book’s criticism was especially harsh with respect to disputes between churches as to which one really has a particular relic from a particular saint and even more so with respect to some claims that really are preposterous on their face, such as three churches each claiming to have the piece of skin from Jesus’s circumcision as a newborn infant. It is a shame that the Church opens itself to ridicule by allowing such claims to be made by parishes.
What got me thinking about this was going to Sainte-Chapel in Paris on the recent choir pilgrimage. It was built by the French royal family to house the relics of the Passion of Christ, among which was the crown of thorns. Louis IX purchased the relics from the Emperor of Constantinople in the 4th century, adding to the growing reputation of France and Paris in particular as a “new Jerusalem.” The relics are no longer at Sainte-Chapel, having been transferred to Notre Dame in Paris. They are well guarded, of course, but – as I just learned this morning from this wiki site – the crown of thorns is put on display every Friday at 3 p.m. and all day on Good Friday.
Complete skeptic as I am about the existence of a skin fragment from Jesus as an infant, it does seem possible that those who took Jesus’s body down from the cross could have kept the crown of thorns and treasured it, safeguarding it from generation to generation. Nothing could be more normal, more natural, as anyone who has saved a lock of a child’s hair or has a flower given by a loved one preserved between the pages of a treasured book will recognize.
Even we Anglicans have our material things that we revere, such as the pulpit in the Washington Cathedral made from stone from Canterbury Cathedral, from which Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last sermon, and the prayer desk in our St. John’s Chapel, made from wood from St. Albans Cathedral in England and given to us in 1909 by the Bishop of St Albans. These tangible objects keep us reminded of the faith of our fathers and encourage us in our own quest to be saints.
If ever I am in Paris again, I’ll try to be at Notre Dame at 3 p.m. on a Friday. It might be true.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 1-September-2015.