What a wholesome liturgical instinct this glorious festival represents. In the medieval English rites, it tried out various dates; May 22 or the Monday after the Ascension at Exeter; the Sunday after the Translation of S Thomas (July 7) at Hereford and Sarum - although Sarum notes that 'nuper' it occupied the Octave Day of our Lady's Nativity, with an appropriate Collect "Grant we beseech thee Almighty God, that the merits may protect us of the holy Mother of God and Ever Virgin Mary and of thy Saints whose relics are kept in this church ...". The traditional Benedictine rite keeps this festival on May 13, presumably a learned allusion to the Dedication of the Pantheon in Rome, upon this day, as the Church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres. Before the reforms of S Pius X, this festival was to be found among the Masses For Some Places on October 26, or on the Last Sunday of October.
After S Pius X, the Feast of the Relics settled, most appropriately, onto a day within the Octave of All Saints, November 5, where it was observed by papal indult in certain places (often as a Greater Double). The colour to be used is red. This is consistent with the fact that the Office is the Common of Many Martyrs, despite the fact that not all the Saints whose relics we this day venerate were martyred. Perhaps we may relate this usage to the primitive notion that the Martyrs are the prototypical saints; that the unmartyred sancti et sanctae in a sense just piggy-back along upon the martyrs.
The dear old Sacred Congregation of Rites sometimes felt tempted to turn to Byzantine sources to get a richer mixture than one always finds in formal Western texts (Sessio xxv of Trent is sound enough on the relics but a trifle sober). So the proper lections at Mattins for this feast are taken from that always-reliable Doctor of the Church S John of Damascus (Fr Eric Mascall once observed the propensity of Roman liturgists to resort to Eastern sources whenever they felt moved to say something 'extreme'). "For since Life itself and the Author of Life was numbered among the dead, we do not call those who finished their last day in the hope of Resurrection and of faith in Him 'Dead'. For how can a dead body utter miracles? Through relics the devils are cast out, diseases sent fleeing, the sick healed, the blind see ..." etc. etc.. The Collect is a fine composition which likewise sees the miracles performed through the relics of Saints as pledges of the Resurrection: Increase in us O Lord our faith in the Resurrection, who in the relics of thy Saints dost perform marvellous works: and make us partakers of the immortal glory of which our veneration of their ashes [cineres] is a pledge.
In the Leofric Missal, copied probably from texts brought to England in S Augustine's rucksack, there is a Votive for use in a Church or Oratory where relics are held. Its Collect lists all those categories of Saints of whom we might possess relics ... including our Lady and the Angelic Powers! A couple of its texts use the word patrocinium apparently to mean "our hoard of relics", and one phrase reminds God that we have gone to the trouble to collect them (colligere curavimus)!
This celebration disappeared from Church life in the post-Conciliar period, for presumably the same reasons that at the same time caused the Jesuits, who then occupied the Church of S Aloysius in this City, to have a massive bonfire of all the relics and reliquaries in their splendid Relics Chapel (the late Fr Bertram's elegant booklet about those events reminds one uncannily of the similar things which happened throughout England in the late 1540s ... mercifully, the gracious spirit of S Philip Neri has now restored lost glories by filling the Alyoggers Relics Chapel with a grand new collection).
This feast is, in my view, rich in themes for evangelical preaching and teaching, and ripe for wider revival. It teaches the goodness of material things against a false 'spiritualism'; it preaches the ultimately indissoluble link between Body and Soul against the sub-Christian notion that only the soul really matters; it proclaims the transforming eschatological glory which will clothe this perishable with what is imperishable, and this mortal with what is immortal, in a moment (en atomoi), in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.