Relics and Ashes
First-class relics of a saint are pieces of his or her body; second-class are items that touched the saint’s body, while third-class are items that have touched a first-class relic. As it happens I have a second-class relic of John XXIII. It is a tiny circle of cloth, probably punched out of an alb he wore. It was given to me by the late ecumenist J. Robert Wright, with the comment that one used to be able to pick up scads of these in Rome.
Relics in the proper sense, being pieces of a body, seem disrespectful to us. But of old it was otherwise: this person was holy and therefore his or her body is worthy of reverence in all its parts. To pray in the presence of even some fragment of that body was important. And so one finds, for instance, not only the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Spain, wherein is said to be his body, but also relics of Saint James (pieces long ago taken from his body) in churches in many other places.
Even in dispersion, the saint’s body is a focal point for prayer.
In our day cremation is widely practiced. I have no theological objection to cremation itself, but I think we lose something when we scatter ashes. We lose that focal point for prayer. If the ashes are buried in a church garden, or placed in a niche in a church wall, then a person can go there and pray and give thanks. I can imagine the ashes being divided into different locations, analogously to relics being taken to different churches—although the purpose needs to be pious and not sentimental.
This is hard to think through clearly. In the film The Way, the father takes his son’s ashes with him as he walks the Camino de Santiago. Reverently, he leaves bits of ash at various points along the Way, which he is walking for his son. Ferociously, he runs after a thief who nabs his backpack, because within it are his son’s ashes. So the father is serious, reverent, and protective.
It’s a beautiful film, but at the end of the Way I would have wanted to put my son’s ashes in a church.
Easter is full of mysteries. One of the mysteries is this: We have no relics of Jesus, no body, no remains. All our customs for what we do with bodies after death lie in the shadow of a resurrection that is yet future for us but already real for him.
Out & About. This Sunday, April 16, the Good Books & Good Talk seminar will discuss Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers—the first of her delightful mysteries, published 1923, in which she introduces her famous detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. The seminar meets at Incarnation in Dallas from 5 to 6:30pm in Room 205 of the education building. Anyone interested may come; anyone who has read the book may speak!