We lost the feast of St. Stephen this year because it coincided with a Sunday within the Octave of Christmas, the feast of the Holy Family, December 26. As the Christmas carol informs us: “Good King Wenceslaus went out on the feast of Stephen.” Stephen has the honor of being dubbed the “proto-martyr” of Christianity, that is, the first martyr – and one of the original seven men today considered the first deacons – at whose stoning Saul was present and in which he was actually complicit.
As a pious legend has it, on December 3, 415, a certain Lucian was roused from sleep by the appearance of one who identified himself as Gamaliel (the famous teacher of the Law who had been Paul’s tutor in the ways of Judaism). He urged Lucian to tell Bishop John of Jerusalem to go to a place where he would discover the tombs of Gamaliel and Stephen, along with that of Nicodemus (Our Lord’s secret night-visitor). Lucian followed the directives of Gamaliel and shared the story with Bishop John who, in turn, did as directed. Upon the opening of the tombs, a most pleasant aroma came forth; the Bishop took the holy remains in solemn procession to the church on Mount Sion in Jerusalem – on December 26. In other words, we have the feast of the Proto-martyr because his relics arrived at their place of rest and honor on that date.
The first point to appreciate is what I like to call “the web of grace.” Here we encounter Paul, Stephen, Nicodemus and Gamaliel, whose lives were intertwined because of their connection to Jesus and His early Church. We find this throughout the history of the Church: Francis and Clare; Ignatius Loyola, Philip Neri and Charles Borromeo; Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal; Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac; John Paul II and Mother Teresa. I often wonder how many saints are walking around today and supporting each other in the renewal of the Church. That we shall only know in eternity.
The main point I would like to consider today, however, is the matter of holy relics. At the time of the Protestant Reformation – and even before – relics got a bad name. And often enough and sadly, rightly so. We should recall that it was on October 31, All Hallows Eve (when a massive display of relics was made), that Luther chose to begin his challenge to Catholic practices. He is alleged to have quipped: “Christ had only twelve apostles, yet Germany claims to have the relics of fourteen of them!” Which tells us that putting forth false relics was a common practice.
Yet we know that the adage teaches us: Abusus non tollit usum (abuse doesn’t take away use). Which leads us to ask if there is indeed a legitimate use of relics. The answer is a resounding “Yes!”
In the Old Testament, a corpse brought into contact with the bones of Elisha was revived (2 Kings 13:21). In the Acts of the Apostles, the faithful took cloths that had been touched to St. Paul and touched them to the sick and possessed, who were restored to health (19:12). The fifth chapter of Acts tells us that just the “shadow of Peter” was sought for its healing power. Simply put, contact with the holy can have restorative effects.
Now, we must be clear: Being superstitious, gullible and credulous is not meritorious; being open to the workings of God is. The Council of Trent took seriously the abuses, as has the Church since then. And so, fraud is obviated by the need to have proper documentation. Similarly, no payment can be demanded or given; such a transaction would constitute the sin of simony. Critically important to stress, of course, is that a relic is not a talisman; its effectiveness depends on the faith of the believer.
From the earliest days of Christianity, the Eucharistic Sacrifice was offered on the tombs of martyrs – those who had imitated to an extraordinary degree the Sacrifice of the One in whose memory the Sacred Liturgy is celebrated. To this day, the relics of saints (preferably, martyrs) are deposited in an altar when it is consecrated. The priest kisses the altar, which is the symbol of the Lamb-once-slain and the depository for those holy ones who shared in His passion and now share in His glory. A worthwhile project would be to find out whose relics are in the altar of your parish church.
In his Meditation on Mary as the Rosa Mystica Cardinal Newman reminds us:
Christians from the earliest times went from other countries to Jerusalem to see the holy places. And, when the time of persecution was over, they paid still more attention to the bodies of the Saints, as of St. Stephen, St. Mark, St. Barnabas, St. Peter, St. Paul, and other Apostles and Martyrs. These were transported to great cities, and portions of them sent to this place or that. Thus, from the first to this day it has been a great feature and characteristic of the Church to be most tender and reverent towards the bodies of the Saints. (Prayers, Verses and Devotions, for May 26)
Of course, as Catholics we have the possibility of daily contact with the Holy One Himself as the greatest miracle of all is re-enacted on our altars. The Eucharistic Christ offers Himself in the most intimate manner imaginable as His Body enters ours. In the normal process of ingestion, food becomes a part of us; in the miracle of the Holy Eucharist, we become the Sacred Food we consume – we become Christianoi, “little Christs.” That is the holy contact we should always seek, in which we should rejoice, and for which we must be eternally grateful.
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