It’s always seemed to me that part of our tradition of relics is plainly and simply weird.
Catholics keep the bones of our ancestors all around us. Those not fortunate to have relics directly from a favorite saint will often have items that the saints touched or used. Those relics aren’t as gripping or as odd as the little bits of bones we keep, but it’s still a little creepy to hold onto such old things from dead people so tightly.
Every permanent altar in a Catholic Church has at least one fragment of bone from a deceased saint.
Every Catholic altar is a kind of graveyard. Catholics pray surrounded by the remains of saints who have died before us. You could say it’s a bit creepy. It’s sometimes even disturbing, especially in an age when we often avoid graveyards and many funerals do not actually include burying the body under the earth, but leave that to the professionals who work there.
Some people hold onto relics as a way of trying to live in the past or at least so as not to forget our ancestors. Some do it to honor their heroes. Catholics also think relics can be miraculous. They don’t work exactly as talismans, but they do connect us to special graces associated with the saint who left them behind. It’s one step short of magic because the relic itself doesn’t possess powers on its own, but it does connect us to the Communion of Saints and to God’s graces.
Relics speak a language that is not easily translated.
They have layers of meaning. Certainly, they connect us to the past and keep alive important memories. They can whisper familiar sayings to us from long ago. They can remind us to focus on what is important. They can cry out in the groanings of the Spirit. They can call down graces from Heaven. They connect us, even through death, to everlasting life in God. They are powerful symbols of the Paschal Mystery and the saving action of Christ in our lives.
This is why we keep them in our altars.
Mass should be celebrated on an altar (place of death and sacrifice) and over the bones of the saints. We keep these reminders of death not because we are fixated on the past, glorify suffering, or want to be creepy, but because every relic is a sign that death does not have the final sting. God’s creation is good. The Saints have experienced God’s redemption. Their lives on earth ended in the way of all mortal flesh, but their lives continue in God.
We cling to those relics as part of our faith and hope which cling to the same salvation in the same Lord. We cling to those relics out of the same love of God and neighbor that seeks the everlasting peace and joy of Heaven.