At Mass today we commemorate the Feast of Holy Relics – an ancient observance that fits well in its “recent” calendarial location in the octave of All Saints and following All Souls.
An opportunity again to dwell on the fullness of the Communion of the Saints – the interalia of the Church Triuphant, the Church Militant and the Church Expectant. In my homily today I explained the development of the practice of placing Relics in or about Altars.
The Early Church under persecution, having originally met for worship in the homes of local members, was driven to seek the protection of the cemeteries and in some places, the catacombs – essentially the burial places around their towns/cities. Due to a long existing “fear” of the dead and places associated with them(!) Christians could meet almost without interruption from their pagan persecutors who were too fearful to enter the places of the dead in the hours of darkness.
As the Persecutions became more deadly and church members were being martyred for their faith, the importance of gathering together in the places were the mortal remains of their brothers and sisters in the faith were kept became acutely poignant, particularly in connection to the offering of the Holy Mysteries wherein the rememberance of the Passion and Death of Our Lord were celebrated and His Body and Blood shared…
For the Early Church to be a martyr was something some Christians “looked forward to” in the sense that they were so confident in their faith and the promise of eternal life offered to them in the Gospel, that the possibility to spill their blood in defence of the religion of He who spilt His Blood for the world was something not undesired. It became quite something then to the Early Christians to meet in the tombs surrounded by the mortal remains of their forbears in the Faith and to offer the Holy Sacrifice in “memory of Me”.
Thus later, when the Church was able to grow and develop during those times without persecutions and worship resumed to at first homes (Domus Ecclesiae) and then later Churches and more permanent and dedicated places of worship, the rememberance of the martyrs and their obvious connection to the Sacrifice of the Mass, meant that the remains of those of particular memory were transfered from the burial places to be located in these new places of worship and specifically under the Altars upon which the Blood of the Saviour of the World was offered. The connection in the Church’s heart, let alone the remembrance of those who had died for her Faith, had been inextricably linked with the most solemn offering of her worship and expression of community, the holy Sacrifice of the Mass.