It is easy to see why many are disturbed by the idea of relics. As it is presented to them, the Church invented such things to gain wealth off of the pious and ignorant. The Biblically illiterate are especially vulnerable we are told, because they, just like the days before the protestant reformation, are easily swayed by the doctrines of men that can neither be found in the Scriptures nor in ancient Christian memory. But really, there are two very important reasons to believe in relics, the first has to do with us, and the second has to do with God.
It comes as a truism that we Christians are supposed to love each other. And so when a loved one dies, regardless of the quarrels and misunderstandings we have shared with that person, we find that the person’s remains also mean something to us. And as if by some logic of the heart, we place their bodies in locations that are equally meaningful. These actions are not uniquely Christian in themselves, and they certainly are not novel. In the 2nd century, very early on in Christian memory to be sure, we read the following in the account of Polycarp’s death:
And so we afterwards took up his bones which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place; where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy, and to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom for the commemoration of those that have already fought in the contest, and for the training and preparation of those that shall do so hereafter. (Martyrdom of Polycarp 17,3)
Quite simply then, the first reason to venerate the remains of our saints is because we love each other, and the more their love for God is known to us, the more we find the desire within ourselves to love them.
Admittedly, even this love and affection for heroic believers is not enough reason for us to elevate people to the degree that we do. For in all honesty, it is not because of our love of the person that we tremble when encountering the remains of such holy men and women. We tremble because of the power of God which they communicate.
While walking among us, these men and women were so alive with God that they made His will evident, and we know that even in their death they continue to be an instrument of that same divine mercy. Probably the best known Biblical example of this is the brief account following the death of the prophet Elisha. The Scripture reads:
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. (2 Kings 13:20)
You see, God can bring healing through anything, but He has His favourite methods. The saints, the people of God that we love who have given their lives to communicate His presence to us, this is what God prefers.
And so we handle the relics of our saints with care because we love them, but we tremble while we do so because of the God who has been known to communicate Himself through them.