Saints and Relics

(pic: close up of a holy reliquary that houses bone fragments of St Paul, St Anna, St Joachim, St Nicolas and St Blais
* First off, Happy Birthday to my fathers-in-law: Bob and Rick.  Also, to my “niece” and friend, Lydia–you go, girl! :-)

Today is November 1st, All Saints Day.  In Western Christian theology it is a holy day commemorating all those who’ve died and reached the beatific vision of heaven (have died and reached the presence of God). The November 1st feast of All Saints is traced back to Pope Gregory III (731–741) during an oratory in St. Peter’s for the relics “of the holy apostles and of all saints, martyrs and confessors, of all the just made perfect who are at rest throughout the world”. (“All Saints Day,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd edition, ed. E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 41-42.)  All Souls Day (tomorrow, November 2nd) is a day to remember all the Christians who have died but have not yet been purified (have not reached the beatific vision).  These are controversial concepts as many Protestant denominations believe that all Christians who die go directly go to the presence of God–that there is no purification in heaven, that Jesus, through His death and resurrection is our doorway after death to the immediate presence of God...

 In September I went to see the Vatican Splendors display at the Minnesota History Museum. One of the items there that came to mind today was a reliquary that held the bone fragments of St Peter (an apostle of New Testament fame). I’ve spent most of the morning looking online for a picture of it so I could post it for you. The Vatican must guard that image well, as the only one I could find was in a pdf religious education guide for teachers who brought students to the exhibit ( about 3/4 of the way down the document in Part 6). Above is a close up of another reliquary that has a similar look to it and houses bone fragments of St Paul (wrote many of the books of the New Testament), St Anna (Mary’s mother, Jesus’ grandmother), St Joachim (St Anna’s husband, Jesus’ grandfather), St Nicolas (yep, Santa Claus’s bones–don’t tell the kids :) and St Blaise (throat healing saint who died in 316AD)…quite a collection!

 At the exhibit, there was quite a crowd around the relic.  I almost walked by, not overly impressed, but then I thought I really should look, everyone else was.  I stooped down and got up close to read the handwritten names next to the bone fragments.  It wasn’t a wowza moment, but then I rarely ponder the great holiness of those who gave everything to serve the Lord.  I rarely, if ever, really think about these people as real people–I learn from their writings, their stories, but never stop to imagine that they were flesh and blood, real people like myself, like the rest of us.  I overlook the fact that they had real emotions, real families, real struggles, real heartaches.  Regrettably, I stooped, looked and walked away, rather dismissively.

Maybe it is easier to recognize the saints we’ve known personally, those who’ve pointed us to Jesus, those who’ve taken time to feed our love of God, to teach us His precepts, those whom the Spirit has breathed hope and love through, and those who’ve walked beside us as we’ve stumbled along on the path He has set us upon.  Maybe we keep a relic of theirs: a lock of hair, a ring, a gift given, a family Bible, a photo, a cherished item.  These oftentimes are passed to the next generation with a story attached.  We want to keep their memory alive, help those who never knew them remember that they existed, that they mattered and that they were loved.  While cleaning out Gmo’s (my grandmother’s) home after she moved into assisted living, my aunt pulled an old ratty quilt out from the back of G’mo’s closet.  She was ready to toss it, but I stopped her, I knew there was something to that quilt.  So I took it home and asked G’mo about it later.  She began to cry, it was a quilt her mother made and has cloth patches in it from some of Mommy’s (her mother’s) dresses.  Although Mommy died when I was young I do remember her and remember hearing that she was a person of prayer and deep faith–I’m sure she said many prayers for even little old me and maybe even my children (whom she never knew).  I will pass this relic on to one of my children, with the story attached.

Holy relics remind us of the Brothers and Sisters who’ve gone before and are often purported to have healing power. People from around the world flock to these relics bringing with them their ailments and problems in hopes of a miracle.  Regular relics (i.e. heirlooms/keepsakes) can’t take that fame, yet in quiet ways they do bring healing by being physical reminders that we’re connected to those before us, those who paved the way for where we are now.  Our connectedness reminds us that we have and never will stand alone…it took a lot of people to do a lot of things for us to be where we are now…Most of the items in our home are hand me downs, which means many came from family members, some of whom are deceased.  We have a table my mother’s grandfather made, a jewelry box of Mom’s grandmother, a bookcase my grandpa made. We have my G’mo’s aunt Julia’s rocking chair (or so the legend goes), we have G’mo’s 16th birthday dresser, we have another grandfather’s clock and hutch, etc. etc.  All these people have died, yet I feel like we’re surrounded by them–that the original owners are somehow still with them rooting us on, encouraging our family in this life thing.  I’m reminded of Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [those who’ve died and gone before us], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

Whatever your belief or tradition (Eastern Orthodox celebrate All Saints Day in May), I thought I’d mention All Saints Day so we can at least be invited to remember and say a prayer of thanks for those who’ve pointed us to God over the years, whether they are canonized or are more in line with the likes of a grandmother whose lap we sat on as a child.  

This day many Christians around the globe are lighting candles in remembrance, in honor.  I like that idea, gonna light a candle…


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