How fitting that we cover today the topic of relics and images as part of the First Commandment for today is the great feast of the Exaltation or Triumph of the Cross.
The true cross was found by Saint Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great in the year 326. Her workmen, digging on Mount Calvary in search of the true cross of Christ, found three crosses. Two of the crosses were applied without result to a very sick woman. As soon as the third cross touched her, she was instantly cured.
The feat of the finding of the true cross is kept on May 3. The adoration of the Cross on Good Friday is part of the Holy Week devotions. The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is universally celebrated today, September 14, a day before we honor the Blessed Mother's role in this Triumph with the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. The two go hand in hand, especially when we consider Our Lady's role as Advocate, Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of all graces.
We honor relics because they are the bodies of the saints, or objects connected with the saints or with Our Lord.
In a similar manner we preserve with reverence certain objects connected with our great men,--a sword, a coat, or books. Remains of the bodies of saints, the Cross on which Our Lord died, the nails that crucified Him are all relics. The clothes and furniture used by the saints are also held as relics.
Only those relics are authentic to which the name of the saint and the episcopal seal are attached; relics cannot be sold. God has often shown His approval of the use of relics by working miracles by means of them. "When it had been touched the bones of Eliseus, the man came to life" (4 Kings 13:21).
Relics deserve to be venerated. The bodies of the saints were temples of the Holy Spirit, and instruments by which God worked. They will someday rise glorious from the grave, and be united with the soul in heaven. God shows His approval of the veneration of relics by working frequent miracles at their application. In certain cases, the bodies of the saints have remained incorrupt, as those of Saint Teresa, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Catherine of Bologna, Saint Vincent de Paul, Saint Catherine Laboure and Saint Bernadette. The blood of Saint Januarius, kept in a vial at Naples liquefies several times a year for certain periods. "God worked more than the usual miracles by the hand of Paul; so that even handkerchiefs and aprons were carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out" (Acts 19:12).
We honor relics when we preserve them with reverence, visit the places where they are deposited, pray before them, etc. Honor has been paid to relics from the earliest days of Christianity. When Saint Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, was thrown to the lions, two of his companions came by night and gathered up his bones. When Saint Polycarp was burned alive, the Christians collected his ashes for veneration. And so on.
Most prized of all relics are relics of Christ's Passion, particularly of the cross on which He died. Some scoff at the relics of the cross, saying that there are too many to be genuine. But if all known pieces were put together, they would make a block only about 1/6 of a cubic foot. Today the twelve most famous portions of the true Cross range from 6.33 cubic inches to 33 cubic inches. The largest are to be found in Jerusalem, Brussels, Ghent, and Rome. Particles venerated are very small.
It is right to show respect to the statues and pictures of Christ and of the saints, just as it is right to show respect to the images of those whom we love on earth.
We cherish photographs of our family and friends. We cherish and honor our National Flag, not because of the cloth out of which it is made, but because of what it represents. In a similar manner we respect sacred statues and pictures.
The honor we pay sacred images and pictures is not idolatry, because we do not adore them.
We honor sacred images in order to show our veneration for the persons they represent, not to adore them as gods. We make and use statues and pictures to remind us of Jesus Christ, Our Lady, and the saints. God Himself, after giving the First Commandment, ordered the making of statues to be placed in the Temple; and God cannot contradict Himself. Sacred images do not promote false worship.
Some of the benefits we derive from the veneration of sacred images are:
We honor Christ and the saints when we pray before the crucifix, relics, and sacred images, because we honor the persons they represent; we adore Christ and venerate the saints.
- (a) Through them effective, and sometimes supernatural, graces are obtained. There have been instances of miraculous pictures and statues, as well as crucifixes.
- (b) They help us avoid distractions while praying, by fixing our attention.
- (c) They serve as a silent admonition to encourage us to imitation.
- (d) They are wonderful means for instructing the faithful in religion. The greatest artists in the world have been Catholic artists. Their greatest masterpieces treat of religious subjects. Even the most unlettered can understand a picture.
Our actions should always conform to the faith implied by the pictures we display. We have those holy images for holy purposes, to venerate the saints for God's sake, and to imitate their holy lives.
We show veneration for sacred pictures and statues by placing them in our homes, in churches, in the schools. Jesus made a special promise to bless the house in which an image of His Sacred Heart is exposed.
We pray before them, adorn them with flowers, burn lights before them, and kiss them with reverence. We make visits and pilgrimages to the tombs or shrines of the saints. Similarly, on civil holidays, we show honor to our heroes by placing wreaths on their graves; we visit their homes, etc.
Above all other sacred representations, we venerate the crucifix most. It is the sign of our redemption. On the cross Our Lord died to save us from the consequences of sin.
Such is the honor the Church pays the crucifix that she allows no sacrament to be administered, no Mass to be celebrated, no act of worship to be performed, unless in the presence of a crucifix.
Sadly this reverence and rigidity has been abused over the past thirty years due to new architecture that has sought to deemphasize the trauma and sacrifice of the cross in order to placate those who might be offended by the bloody sacrifice of the cross. It reminds us of the time we attended our first PTA meeting at a Catholic school in the city of San Diego. As we looked around we couldn't find a single crucifix on the wall. Weren't we in a Catholic grade school? When we attended there were usually two crucifixes in a class room, one where the students could see Our Lord on the cross and one where Sister could see Him. But here there were no nuns, no one dedicated to the traditions of the Church but rather overly sensitive to the needs of non-Catholic children attending the school because they could afford the outlandish tuitions that used to be covered by the parish if that child was an active member of the parish. When we asked we were given the pat, politically correct excuse, "Oh, that's too traumatic for the children." Our reply: "Wrong, Catholics are weaned on the crucifix." The problem is that too many have sold out to secular interests and sacrificed their value of the true sacrifice on the cross. Needless to say, we pulled the kids from that school immediately and began homeschooling them. To this day there is a crucifix in every room of our home and it should be that way in every home. Plus, everyone should carry the crucifix with them wherever they go when they carry their Rosary with them.
We place the crucifix in the hands of the dying. It accompanies us to the grave. Every Christian home should have a crucifix prominently displayed. We do not pray to the crucifix or to the images and relics of the saints, but to the persons they represent.
The veneration we pay to sacred images and relics is not paid to the relic, picture, or statue itself, but to the one represented, God, or one of the saints or angels. In the same way when we kiss our mother's picture we do not give our affection to the paper, but to our mother. Disrespect to an image is disrespect to the one represented.
In venerating relics, sacred statues, and pictures, we do not believe that any divine power resides in them. They cannot, of themselves, work miracles. The numerous miracles worked through the use of relics were a result, not of the relics' power, but of God's, acting through them. The Gospels tell the moving story of the woman cured by touching the hem of Our Lord's garment. Yet even that sacred garment did not by itself work the miracle; Christ used His power, working through the garment. And so today relics continue to play a part in the working of miracles, in the suspension of the natural law, but always as mere instruments of Almighty God.
Next Thursday: The First Commandment part four - Sins against Faith