31 October 2022
I rejoice in the facility of offering the Holy Sacrifice on an Altar sealed with Relics; it is a relief to be able to be ecumenical, to conform to the consensus of the Latin West and the Byzantine East, that one should sacrifice over, as it were, the tombs of the martyrs. If a custom was good enough for the shell-shocked Church which in the fourth century emerged, metaphorically, from the catacombs with an overwhelming sense of being surrounded and supported by a great crowd of witnesses, martyres, then that custom is good enough for me. Even if the post-conciliar Church has gone a bit soggy on relics. I commend to those whose breviaries contain the old Appendix pro aliquibus locis the fine collect and the superb reading from S John Damascene they will find on November 5.
Not that the veneration of relics is as late as the fourth century. The contemporary account of the martyrdom of S Polycarp, the disciple of S John, embodied in the Encyclical which his Church at Smyrna sent to the Catholic world in the middle of the second century, links the desire of the faithful for his relics with the doctrine of the Communio Sanctorum, the Communion of Saints: "they hoped to koinonesai* with his holy flesh". So, although the hatred of the local Jewish community drove the Romans to burn his body, his people gathered up even the ashes and placed them where they could meet for Mass annually on the genethlion* of his martyrion*, for a mneme* of those who had proathlekoton* and the askesis* and preparation of those who were going to bear witness.
Most immediately pre-conciliar local calendars made November 5, the Feast of the Holy Relics; according to Sarum it was on the Sunday after the Translation of S Thomas, i.e. in July; at Exeter on the Monday after Ascension Day.
Greek key: *share fellowship with; *birthday; *act of witness=martyrdom; *monument; *previously competed as athletes [a regular term for martyrdom]; *training. [I cannot restrain myself from two catty comments: that the current post-conciliar Roman regulations do not permit the use within altars of such relics as the tiny fragments gathered up by those who loved S Polycarp; and that, for sola Scriptura people, Acts 19:12 appears to encourage the use of Secondary Relics; and II Kings 13:21 the use of Primary Relics.]
Posted by Fr John Hunwicke at 10:09
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I loved your two catty comments, Father.
Dear Reverend Fr. Hunwicke.
As always, Thank You for your Priestly life and commitment to "Things Catholic".
Reference "the superb reading from S John Damascene they will find on November 5", may I, respectfully, point out that I found that particular reading on 27 March in my Saint Andrew Daily Missal (1945 vintage).
Obviously, at some juncture (probably post-Conciliar), this particular Feast Day was moved. One wonders why.
I am reminded of Nelson's sailors, who first gatecrashed his funeral and then cut bits off the ensign that covered his coffin, so that they could take them home and - dare one say it? - revere them. Oxford University, I am told, still preserves the blackboard on which Einstein wrote when he came to Oxford to lecture. I wonder if someone touches up the chalk from time to time, if the letters start to fade. At any rate, we can be sure that it is handled with special gloves.
In my Orthodox parish, we have fragments of bone of the Grand Duchess Elisabeth and her cell companion Barbara, murdered by the Bolsheviks just after Easter in 1918. They were thrown down a mine shaft, and when their murderers heard them singing psalms they threw hand grenades down the mine shaft. Theirs were slow and cruel deaths, born with fortitude and forgiveness of their murderers, as the Grand Duchess had previously forgiven the assassin of her husband in 1905. The relics are in a small reliquary in front of icons of her, and each Sunday I am able to reverence them with a kiss as I light a candle and pray to her to support me on my Christian pilgrimage. She was a grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, brought up Protestant but converted to Orthodoxy on marriage. She is a role model for me, a help and inspiration: I was born Anglican and converted to Orthodoxy in later life. She is also the patroness of our parish. There are, naturally, relics in the altar, as well as other relics, modern and ancient, in the body of the church.
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