Come into the Oratory Church on Easter Sunday and you will find the High Altar decked with reliquaries. Most striking are the silvered bishops’ heads busts. Similar models can be found in churches all over the Lombardy region of Italy, and the Oratory busts were brought back to London from Bergamo by Father Edmund Garnett in 1892. They are placed on the altar amid an explosion of bells, music and light after the intonation of the Gloria at the Easter Vigil.
These busts contain fragments of bone, as do most of the reliquaries that the Oratory possesses, and as do the altar stones embedded in the many altars that grace the chapels of the Oratory Church. The sarcophagus under the altar in St Mary Magdalene’s chapel actually contains a complete human skeleton from the Roman catacombs, while the life-sized model of our Holy Father St Philip under his altar, also exposed at the Easter Vigil, contains a relic from the saint’s body in the hand.
Easter morning is bursting with the freshness of new life, and this display of old bones might not seem the most obvious way to celebrate Our Lord’s everlasting triumph over death and decay. These relics, however, teach something very important about the meaning of the Resurrection for us. Through Baptism, these mortal remains of the saints became living temples of the Holy Spirit. The souls to which they were once united now await reunion with their bodies in Heaven. Throughout His ministry, Our Lord’s healing miracles show us how He came to save the whole man, soul and body. The reunion of His body and soul on Easter morning leave us in no doubt that the body is God’s creation and therefore good. His bodily Ascension to the right hand of the Father in Heaven reveals that Heaven is not some disembodied state but a real place where bodies exist. Our Lady’s Assumption body and soul at the end of Her earthly life leaves us in no doubt that there is also a place in Heaven for our bodies as well as our souls. For Christians, the body matters, which is why the Church enjoins us to corporal, as well as spiritual, works of mercy. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry and comforting the sick are all practical expressions of our belief in the value of the whole human person.
When we say the Creed, then, we not only profess our belief that “on the third day He rose again”; we also declare that we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” The first Resurrection is, of course, Our Lord’s. The second is the resurrection of our own bodies from the grave, which, we have been promised, will take place when the trumpet sounds on the Day of Judgment. In this life our bodies eventually become weary and worn, and sometimes bring us great inconvenience and pain. If, pray God, we make it to Heaven, we need not fear that they will ever be an encumbrance to us again. The bodies of the saved are to be glorified. St Augustine and others assure us that what was imperfect in us in this life will be eternally beautified in the life to come. Back in the day, a Redemptorist was preaching on the Four Last Things at a mission, and he repeated Our Lord’s warning that in hell there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. An elderly parishioner interrupted: “Ain’t got no teeth, Father!” to which the reply came from the pulpit: “Teeth will be provided.”
The relics that we see around the church on Easter Sunday are actually a very fitting way to mark the Resurrection. They are the trophies of Christian victory. These mortal remains were once the fragile vessels in which their owners worked out their salvation and sanctification, by God’s grace, on earth. They were sanctified by contact with the waters of Baptism and by the healing and elevating balm of the other Sacraments. Relics themselves have sacramental value, and have been known to bring about great miracles for those who venerate them with devotion. When we venerate a holy relic, we venerate the saint who intercedes for us at the Throne of Grace, and we give honour to Our Lord Jesus Christ whose divine life animated that saint and made him holy.
If a forensic scientist ever laid hands on the Oratory relic collection, he would probably find evidence of traumatic deaths inflicted by steel blade, fire, starvation and the teeth of wild beasts. This is because many of our relics belonged to martyrs, who made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith in our Risen Lord. After suffering for a time on earth, they now behold the vision of the Blessed Trinity in glory. And even for them the best is yet to come: the reunion of body and soul in glory in eternity.
Current events around the world remind us of the fragility of that thread which on earth connects our bodies and souls. The finger on the terror alert dial seems to be stuck permanently on “severe”, which means we might easily be blown limb from limb before we can say Jack Robinson. As long as we die in God’s grace, with the flame of divine charity alight in our souls, we can be confident that we shall eventually receive these bodies back, rejuvenated and bomb-proof. The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Assumption of Our Blessed Lady guarantee this.
Fr Julian Large