THE first of the Ten Commandments is first for a reason: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone!” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The neighbouring nations had many gods. But Israel was never to worship anyone or anything else but the Lord.
OK. The First Commandment is to worship no one else. But the Fourth Commandment is to honour someone else: one’s parents. And this honour is due precisely because God works through parents to give us life.
In fact, Israel recognised that God works through other people and things as well. And, insofar as they are used by God, they deserve our respect and veneration.
Judaism and Catholic Christianity are very physical. After all, the universe is God’s creation. He comes to us through His creation, and we give Him worship with our bodies: we kneel and bow before Him.
But we also use many of these same gestures to show not adoration but veneration for people, places and things associated with Him. Israelites bowed before the king, God’s anointed (1 Kings 1:31). But the king also bowed before his mother (1 Kings 2:19). All Israelites bowed before the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant, God’s footstool (Psalms 99:5).
This biblical background is necessary to understand why Catholics venerate relics. The word “relic” comes from the word for “remains” or something left behind from a holy person or event.
The bones of a martyr, the clothing of a saint, a bloodstained corporal from a Eucharistic miracle – these are all relics.
The origin of preserving and venerating such mementoes is not medieval but biblical. The tablets of the Ten Commandments, the manna saved in the Ark of the Covenant, Elijah’s mantle and even the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21), all these were relics imbued with God’s power and therefore merited due reverence.
In the New Testament, God’s healing power was transmitted to people through the Lord’s garment (Luke 8:44) and handkerchiefs touched to St Paul (Acts 19:12). It is no wonder, then, that the bodily remains as well as clothing touched to the bodies of saints throughout history have continued to be venerated, holding a prominent place in the devotion of God’s people.
But three things must be kept in mind. First, there is essential difference between the worship and adoration (latria) that is due to God alone and the veneration (dulia) shown to all that is associated with Him and His work.
Second, all veneration of tangible relics are signs of love, honour and devotion to the persons with whom those relics are associated and, ultimately, to God.
And finally, a relic is not a magic charm that can be counted on to force God to give us what we want. When we are without true faith and oppose the will of God, even marching behind the Ark of the Covenant will not assure victory in battle – just ask the Israelites (1 Samuel 4).
- By Marcellino D’Ambrosio, CNS
CNS photo: A reliquary containing Pope John Paul II’s blood being carried at the start of a thanksgiving Mass for his beatification. All veneration of relics are signs of love, honour and devotion to the persons with whom those relics are associated and, ultimately, to God.