In last week’s blog post, I talked about a Michelangelo sculpture housed in a Roman Cathedral called St. Peter in Chains. What I didn’t mention is that the Cathedral, built in the 5th century, is so-named because it also houses the chains that bound St. Peter while he was imprisoned. During a break from writing that blog, I ran into a Buddhist friend who mentioned a relic exhibit here in Asheville last weekend. Not Christian relics. Buddhist relics. These small pebble-like objects are unlike any relics in the Christian tradition. Intrigued, I decided to research relics across the religious traditions. Here’s a bit of what I learned.
We’ll start with the Christian relics, which include tongues, fingers, hands, arms, skulls, blood, breast milk, severed heads, and even entire bodies of various saints. In many cases, churches were built largely as a way to house these relics. St. Peter in Chains is the perfect example. According to legend, a bishop gave the chains that held St. Peter in Jerusalem to a consort of Emperor Flavius Valentinianus. She gave them to her daughter, Eudoxia, the wife of a later Emperor. Eudoxia eventually presented them to Pope Leo I. The Pope was already in possession of the chains that bound St. Peter when he was in the Mamertime prison in Rome, so this was a nice addition to his collection. When he put the two sets of chains together, they miraculously fused. To honor both the objects and the event, a basilica was built. The fused chains are still kept in a gold reliquary under the altar where both tourists and pilgrims can view them to this day.
While the vast majority of Christian relics come from saints, there are certainly relics associated with Jesus himself. Innumerable pieces of the crucifixion cross and a couple dozen Holy Nails (even though only 3 or 4, at most, were used) can be found in churches and cathedrals throughout Europe. This list of relics also includes pieces of the crown of thorns, an actual crown of thorns, blood- and sweat-stained pieces of cloth, a tunic, the Holy Spear used to pierce Jesus’ side, and the Holy Sponge used to offer Jesus a drink during his crucifixion. The Shroud of Turin is arguably the most famous of these relics and surely the most widely studied. The linen cloth bears the full-length image of a man who may have been crucified. Radiocarbon testing dates the shroud to about 1300CE, but no one has figured out how the image was produced, and many remain convinced that it is the burial shroud of Jesus.
If the Shroud of Turin is the most famous, then the Holy Foreskin is perhaps the most odd. The Bible recounts Jesus’ circumcision and naming at eight days of age, which followed Jewish custom (Luke 2:21). Interestingly, there were as many as 18 different foreskins housed in various churches during the Middle Ages. Most disappeared during the Reformation and the French Revolution, but the one in Calcata, a small village just north of Rome, survived. This was a fortuitous turn of events since it was also considered by the Vatican to be the most legitimate foreskin in the world. Unfortunately, in 1983, prior to a stately procession of the relic through the town, a local priest reported that it had been stolen from his home. No one is quite sure why it was in the priest’s home or who stole it, so the foreskin mystery continues.
The Buddhist tradition offers a rather long list of relics, as well. There are a few footprints and begging bowls around, but a large portion of their relics are body parts of the Buddha and his previous incarnations. They do include hair, teeth, and bones, but because the Buddha was cremated, ashes are also held in high esteem. According to one tradition, the ashes were divided among eight ruling families from eight different countries. From there, they were eventually spread throughout the world. As in the Christian tradition, the relics are often enshrined, but they are in stupas rather than churches. In some villages, they are paraded through the streets, and they can lend an air of legitimacy to monasteries who possess them. A certain amount of cloak-and-dagger mystery also surrounds them. Over the years, they have been stolen, rediscovered, passed around, given as gifts, and subjected to various forms of mistreatment as testaments to their authenticity. Legend assures us that the Buddha’s tooth cannot be burned, swallowed up by the sea, or crushed with a hammer. And at least one bone reportedly glowed and replicated itself.
Relics from the Buddha’s many disciples are also cherished. These include the usual hairs and bits of tooth, but one can also find things like robe fragments and portions of the Dharma written on banana leaf. My favorite relics from the Buddhist tradition are those beautiful pearl-like objects called ringsels (in Tibetan) or sariras (in Sanskrit). The claim is that they are remnants of the Buddha or other Enlightened Ones left behind in the ashes after cremation. They come in a variety of colors and are often displayed in small bowls. A variety of beliefs surround them. Some say they are deliberately offered by the masters as objects of veneration. Some say the level of beauty is directly related to the master’s level of spiritual purity. Some say they can replicate or even disappear, depending on the physical and/or mental environment. Some say they ward off evil; others say they bring blessings. They can also spontaneously rain down from the sky.
One of the most interesting things about these bead-like relics is that they are not confined, in any way, to the ancient past. For example, in 2003, the relics of Ananda (the Buddha’s cousin, personal attendant and “heart disciple”) changed color and a new, larger one was miraculously added to the collection. The phenomenon was attributed, in part, to the kindness, respect, and devotion paid to the original collection. The Maitreya Loving Kindness Tour, which was responsible for the set of relics on display here in Asheville, also contained sacred objects that have materialized in the last couple of decades. The Vajrasattva Sky Relic is a translucent pearl that appeared at a 1997 ceremony in China during a “relic rain.” Even more recent is a red relic, purportedly formed from the bodily fluids of a Tibetan master when he died in 2009.
Of course, we wouldn’t want to leave Islam out of the relic fun. Individual hairs, various footprints, and a cloak from the prophet Muhammad can be found in several different countries, but the lion’s share of Islamic relics – over 600 of them – are housed in the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Although the collection contains one of the prophet’s teeth and a portion of his beard, body parts are relatively rare. Instead, the collection includes objects such as the prophet’s sandals, a bow, his swords, a cup, and a bowl. Many such relics are found in a single chamber of the palace where they are surrounded by the continual recitation of the Qur’an. A separate chamber houses Muhammad’s battle flag and one of the most sacred relics of all – Muhammad’s mantle. Both are kept in golden chests. The mantle is publicly displayed each year during Ramadan; the battle flag is never displayed.
The Topkapı Museum collection also includes numerous objects from the prophet’s cadre of family and friends. Robes, turbans, caps, crowns, shirts, and veils are all part of the holdings. One of the most fascinating rooms contains relics from the ancient prophets whose stories are found in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. There is a cooking pot that belonged to Abraham, a turban worn by Joseph, the staff of Moses, a sword from David, and one of those footprints made by Muhammad.
As far as we can tell, relics have been around for all of human history. It’s relatively easy to describe what relics look like, where they are housed, and from whence they supposedly came. It’s much more difficult to determine what they actually mean. The powers-that-be in all three religious traditions are quite clear that the relics themselves should not be venerated. In the early 5th century, St. Jerome discussed the appropriate use of relics when he wrote, “We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore….For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are.” A similar, but slightly more modern, statement was made just a few years ago by a Turkish mufti when discussing the cloak of Muhammad, “What makes it valuable is that it is a gift of our Prophet. Thus, we should show our respect not to the material of the cloak but to God and our holy Prophet.” And from the Maitreya Relics Tour, we have their stated mission, “To bring the blessings of the Relics and the experience of loving kindness to as many people around the world as possible.”
It is interesting that these explanations are needed at all. Perhaps it is because the word “relic” connotes something that is qualitative different from your run-of-the-mill historical artifact or piece of art. Relics are sacred, miraculous, and enigmatic. Their very presence is somewhat inexplicable, and they affect our being or our faith in some mystical way. We stand in awe before them, we claim to be healed in their presence, and we overlook the gory details of their formation as we encase them in beautiful receptacles. Given all of that, I suspect that viewers, regardless of faith tradition, bring their own unique hopes, desires, and interpretations to these beloved relics – as they relegate the admonishments of faith leaders to the back shelf of their minds. Like it or not, relics serve as a porthole. The offer a peek into the life of someone who was able to touch the Divine, a glimpse into the ways in which ordinary people tried to connect with the Holy, or a tiny clue from people long-forgotten about who and what they found to be sacred. They take us back to a far-away time and a far-away place to remind us of all that is possible. And in a world that seems mighty impossible on some days, that alone should make them worth some degree of adoration.
[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]