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Christian Relics

Relics have long played an important role in Christianity, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. In fact, the significance of relics dates back to the days of early Christianity. However, not all branches of Christianity support the veneration of religious relics – in fact most Protestants and Protestant Reformers reject relics as being sacred. Nevertheless, the role of relics in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches continues to have special significance for members of these religious communities.

What is a Relic?

A relic is an object that is deemed to have religious importance. In addition to their importance in certain denominations of Christianity, religious relics also have significance in Buddhism and Hinduism.

The word “relic” is derived from the Latin term reliquiae, meaning “remains”, which refers to a shrine that holds one or more relics.

Important since the origins of Christianity, and particularly during the medieval period, relics are believed to be a means through which to become closer to a divine individual, such as Jesus or a saint, and in turn, closer to God.

The History of Relics

The earliest references to relics in Christianity is found in the Bible, in 2 Kings 13:20-21:

“Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man's body into Elisha's tomb. When the body touched Elisha's bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.”

A reference is also found in Acts 19:11-12, in which the spiritual works of Paul are described:

“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”

Authenticity

The authenticity of religious relics is one that is often under debate. Criticism was especially vocal among secular populations during the medieval period.

Saint Jerome was one individual who was particularly devout regarding the religious virtue of relics:

Saint Jerome declared, "We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are"(Ad Riparium, i, P.L., XXII, 907).

Important Christian Relics

Many relics are linked to Jesus; the most noted are the Shroud of Turin, which is claimed to be the burial shroud of Jesus, although this is greatly debated. Other central religious relics in the Christian Church are pieces of the True Cross, to which many churches claim to hold a piece, mainly in Spain.

It is believed that the cloak of Mary, Jesus’ mother, is located in Aachen, Germany while St. Peter’s remains are believed to be interred in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City. Remains attributed to St. Mark are located in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy.

Other relics that are important in Christianity are those connected to lives of Saint Francis of Assisi, which are housed in Assisi, Italy, as well as those of St. Anthony of Egypt, which are housed near Vienne, France.

Classification

In the tradition of Gregory of Tours, the bishop of Tours and a Greco-Roman historian, who referred to relics as being sanctus (“sacred”) and virtus (“vritus”), relics are distinguished as having the ability to overcome daemons, a Latin term referring to supernatural beings, including dead spirits, heretics, pagans, pagan gods and soothsayers. As such, the selling of religious relics is strictly prohibited.

Relics are also defined in contrast to idols, which are considered to be false virtues, and which included the images of pagan gods, as well as other objects revering multiple gods.

In Christianity, relics are classified as follows:

  • first class relics are associated to the life of Jesus. Examples of such objects include a cross or manger. This category also includes the physical remains of saints, such as hair, a bone or a limb. For example, St. Stephen of Hungary’s right forearm is considered to be a significant Christian relic, as it is symbolic of the king’s authority.
  • second class relics are items that a saint either wore or used, such as an item of clothing or a book
  • third class these can include either a cloth that touched the body of a deceased saint (first category) or a cloth that touched the shrine or reliquary of a saint (second category)


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