Chesterton’s Jaroslav Pelikan’s line about tradition not being “the dead faith of the living” but rather “the living faith of the dead.” I also like the grittiness of traditional, pre-Reformation Christianity, especially the cults of relics. There’s lots to be said against medieval (and contemporary) abuses and misunderstandings in this area, of course. Martin Luther had the best line ever in this regard: “How is it that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?” But one thing relics do is remind us in a very real and shocking way that the Church isn’t just us in our day; the Church precedes us on earth and also exists in heaven. Our own times and concerns are relativized as we are set into the broader stream of our tradition and reminded of our goal, the Beatific Vision.
I was reminded of this recently by reports of the translation of some major relics — the full skeletons of two early martyrs, Saint Bonosa and Saint Magnus — in the Cathedral in Louisville, Kentucky. Here’s the picture in full:
I expect many of my non-Catholic readers will wig out a bit about this; the first full skeletal relics I encountered in St. Peter’s in Munich and St. Peter’s in Vienna in 2004 caught me well off-guard, but I didn’t find them off-putting. Rather, I had a sublime experience of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, I think. In any event, I like relics, especially full skeletons, for reasons adumbrated above: Relics of saints are our brothers and sisters, every bit as much as part of the Church as we.