12 December 2007

on relics . . .

Posted by at 8:13 AM Read our previous post

On Saturday, the 23rd of February, of the year 155 C.E., Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, one of the most venerable and outspoken Christian heresy-bashers of that early period, was put to death by the local authorities. The details of his martyrdom, "preserved" by Iraneus, speak of a miracle happenning just then; according to the legend, he was bound and readied for being burned alive at the stake, but when the pile of fuel was ignited, the flames did not consume his body. Seeing that the fire would not take him, a guard was then ordered to pierce him with a lance, whereupon a dove appeared out of the blue and a prodigious amount of blood flowed out of him, extiguishing the fire beneath him. After his death, the fire was relit and his body was cremated and his reliquiae (remains) were collected by his devoted followers, who conducted a burial ceremony so that they could annually celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom at his grave.

As a result of numerous similar incidents, the remains of the bodies of saints (or portions of them) came to be venerated as avenues of miraculous benefits and divine grace. In time, any object associated with a key figure in Christendom was jealously guarded as a wonder-working relic.

Veneration for relics, and the consequent search for the oldest of them, took on frenzied proportions during the medieval period. Skulls, teeth, rings and personal articles were especially sought after. Inevitably, the whole of Christendom became obsessed with relics linked to the New Testament account of Jesus' own life.

The chalice that Jesus supposedly drank from at the Last Supper thus became the Holy Grail. So much wood from the actual cross on which Jesus was crucified was collected, in fact, that an entire ark, capable of carrying two of every animal on earth, could probably be built from it (with enough left over to burn yet another martyr perhaps).

Most scholars doubt that any such handed-down relic is genuine, yet thousands of them are still displayed to this day—the most famous example being the Shroud of Turin—for the "edification of the pious."

Fast forward to our modern day . . .

The above photograph shows a lock of John Lennon's hair that was sold for approximately $48,000 today.

I can't help but be mildly amused at the veneration that people extend to celebrities. There is a queer irony here. In 1966, John Lennon caused a furor with his passing comment that the Beatles had become "more popular than Jesus." In the wake of this comment came numerous condemnations, criticisms, and even mass record-burnings. How dare he say such a thing?

Yet, here we are, forty years later, placing undue value on such things as a lock of the man's hair. I doubt that anyone will be praying over it (at least I hope not), or even hoping for some kind of vicarious benefit from it. Still, the adulation that things like this receive boggles the mind.



  1. There was an interesting article in the AAR journal a few years ago on "Mark McGuire's Balls" about fetishization and culture. There is a very religious dimension to how we ascribe value to objects. If I can find the journal I'll drop a quote or two...

  2. It's a fascinating aspect of our civilization.

    Reminds me of the Paul Simon tune . . .
    " . . . it's a turn-around jumpshot . . . it's everybody jump-start . . . it's every generation throws a hero up the pop charts . . . medicine is magical and magical is art . . . . the boy in the bubble and the baby with the baboon heart . . . and I believe . . ."


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