The Catholic Church is very incarnational in the sense that we believe that God still works through physical things. Sacraments, sacramentals and relics are examples of how God still works in the world through material things. Relics are what we will focus on today and we will see a Biblical basis for them. First, let’s discuss what is a relic.
The word relic comes from a Latin word that means “remains”.
When a Catholic is talking about a relic, they are talking about the remains of a saint, either part of their body, something they owned, or something that touched their body.
We believe that these things are special because God worked through the person that they belonged to, and not only that, but sometimes God continues to work through the remains of a saint.
For example, in the case of Elisha’s bones:
2 Kings 13:20-21 And Elisha died, and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year. And as they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.
Now what is happening here? Elisha, the successor to the prophet Elijah, has obviously died. Some men are burying their friend near Elisha’s remains when some bandits come so they place their dead friend’s body in Elisha’s grave. Suddenly, the dead friend comes back to life.
Why did this happen? To show that not only did God work through the prophet during his life, but that God would continue to work through the things that belonged to the prophet, namely his bones in this case.
There is another example with Elijah and Elisha.
2 Kings 2:11-14 Then it came about as they were going along and talking, that behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. And Elisha saw it and cried out, "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan. And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and struck the waters and said, "Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?" And when he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over.
So why does God work through the mantle of Elijah? Because it is Elijah’s. It isn’t magic, it’s holiness.
This is my science fiction analogy. While some day, an evil master mind might go on some grand quest to find Elijah’s mantle so he can strike some great sea, split the waters into two and then march his evil army through on dry ground to some poor unsuspecting neighboring country to attack, this is the world of science fiction.
God works through physical things because we are physical beings, not just spiritual. This is to be kept in mind as well. God works through relationships, not mechanisms.
We see more examples of this in the New Testament with Peter and Paul.
It would seem as though even Peter’s shadow healed people.
Acts 5:15-16 They even carried the sick out into the streets, and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by, at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. And also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits; and they were all being healed.
Paul, as well, had miraculous things happen through his handkerchief.
Acts 19:11-12 And God was performing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were even carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out.
What about the objection that “this is just religious superstition and borders on idolatry.”
While any legitimate devotion can be abused, usually what the objection entails is that God does not work through things anymore. Maybe He did at one time in those special circumstances, but He doesn’t any more.
I would stick with a more consistent view of God and say that God did at times work through things and He still does.
You can imagine that even protestants would do this. If someone’s father was particularly virtuous and was devoted to the study of Scripture, when he died, a faithful son would take great care of that Bible, maybe even having a special place for it in the house. Why? Because it’s that Bible, but not just any Bible. It was my dad’s Bible that he used and he was a holy man.
It seems natural. That is why we have museums, to save important things. Relics, though, aren’t just important. They are holy because they belonged to holy people.