Think about the bones in your hand. Most of the time, you probably just think of them as a series of skinny calcium-heavy tubes that you hope won’t get smashed with a hammer. But if you were a saint—and who knows, maybe you are? Try performing a miracle—then every single phalange and metacarpal would be a sacred item that could do anything from cure disease to ward off evil spirits. And hey, even if you aren’t really a saint, they could still make a decent buck if placed in a nice-enough jar.
For those of you who didn’t grow up Catholic and insane, religious relics are pieces of a holy figure’s clothing and (more commonly) corpse that are praised as retaining some of the spiritual power of the original possessor. While remains are the standard, items that rubbed against the body of a holy person, and therefore probably contain the cells of said miracle maker, are also acceptable, and are called “contact relics”—Christ’s sandals, the Holy Grail, et cetera.
But given that religious is a spiritual practice—and that in most religions, the body is seen as sort of a filthy cage that is easily turned towards sin—why are bones and skin flakes so holy? The easy answer is that the people who first began worshipping relics weren’t very smart, and assumed that holiness was quantifiable, that by doing holy things or being favorable in the eyes of the church one had a certain amount of holiness in them. Hey, people collect celebrities’ autographs and locks of their hair—that’s sort of the same thing.
But I think it also has to do with the idea of the Judgment, the Christian belief that some day, God will call everyone up from his or her grave to be judged eternally. This is in part why burial became the industry, and why having a large and well-protected grave was seen as a luxury—that way, your body wouldn’t be a grave robber-defiled mess when the Almighty came a-calling. This suggests that our bodies are in some way sacred, created by a higher power. So it makes sense that if your entry in the book of life involved being a saint, that sacred item you’ve been carrying around would retain some of its holiness.
To be fair, this idea suggests that holy relics are entirely a Christian phenomenon. There are Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim relics as well. But the Christian ones are best known because the Catholic church went apeshit on reliquaries, the jars, cabinets, cases, and display stands in which relics are kept. Even the simplest reliquaries are elaborate gold boxes with glass fronts in which one can witness the hand bones of St. Larry or whoever. The more complicated ones, though, are relic-specific cases depicting bible stories or displaying the saint whose remains they contain in bizarre biblical glory.
The coolest are, of course, the whole relics—those entire bodies preserved and decorated within a church. If you tour cathedrals anywhere in Europe, you’re bound to come across a skeleton in a glass box draped in more jewelry than Liz Taylor. It’s almost as though the church wants to make sure that when the judgment comes, God recognizes the saints as those revenants looking the most fabulous.
This is specifically cool because it returns magic to the church. We often see religion as societal and political, separated from the candles and smoke of sorcery. But relics were often used during mass on feast days of the saint in question (or as I might call them, the bone-holder), hoisted and waved for all to see like a string of bones in a Hollywood voodoo zombie ritual.
Archaic? Draconian? Totally, but who cares? Religious ritual is first and foremost theater, and holding a skull over your head is as dramatic a pose as there is in this world. In that respect, modern worshippers have lost something by no longer incorporating relics into their rites. Sure, if you’re hoping the femur of St. Batholomew will actually heal your sores when you touch it to your skin, then you’re in for a big disappointment. But if you think it would be cool to have said leg bone touched to your head during communion, then relics make mass just that much more fun.
So why let the Aghori have all the fun? I say, let’s bring sacred relics back into the religious world. Too long have skulls and hunks of corpses been solely the ceremonial objects of metal bands and hipster tattoo parlors. It’s time to remember that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and the Funky Bunch are all moldering crypt-based belief systems, and that we’re selling ourselves short by not wearing bones in jars around our necks. Let’s keep it old-school.