Old things are, well, old. If they’re especially old (read “useless”) they become relegated to the status of “relic.” These days, what really matters is what’s new and therefore better or just whatever is “next.”
The obsession with everything new is a challenge for just about every religious tradition as those traditions seem to care mostly about what sits rather far back in the history slipstream. But what if “relic” might mean something more than just “old”?
Some ancient Christians took great care to preserve artifacts, bits and pieces, and other random traces of particularly revered people (“saints”) in their communities. Some of these relics are supposedly wonderfully preserved in the altars of various cathedrals and basilicas around the world.
Now that’s pretty peculiar. And quite honestly, I never really got why any of that vaguely superstitious stuff should have any part in Christian faith. But all of that changed on a trip to France some years ago, about which I was reminded last month when I read about one of my favorite tombs in one of my all-time favorite cemeteries: Pere Lechaise in Paris. The tomb in question is Oscar Wilde’s (and yes, he’s buried in Paris; I mean, of course he is – where else?).
If you’ve never visited the cemetery, you must. And if you’ve never seen Wilde’s tomb, it’s a wonder. An enormous winged angel based on Egyptian/Assyrian mythological creatures. But what was much more interesting to me were all the tiny little pieces of paper crammed into the nooks and crannies of the sculpture; the greasy stains left by thousands of handprints; the lipstick smears deposited by admiring kisses.
The little pieces of paper were notes. Most of them were variations on a single theme: thank you for your courage; you saved my life; bless you for making my life possible. (And yes, I had the audacity to pry out those notes and read them – but at least I put them back.)
I sat on the bench opposite that tomb on that first visit for quite some time. I was deeply moved by what I saw and felt. Some people were crying. Others told ribald jokes and had a good laugh. A few slipped still more paper in the cracks – and some did so quite surreptitiously.
Watching all this and thinking about Oscar’s plays, his essays, his biting wit, I suddenly had a sense of him as a real person. He really wasn’t just a wonderful literary fiction or some phantom from a Victorian past. Oscar Wilde was a flesh-and-blood human being just like me; in fact, he was lying ensconced in a tomb just five feet from where I sat. I was transfixed.
Wilde’s tomb helped me understand better why Christians, both ancient and contemporary, might care about relics. It’s important not only to see something but also to touch something, to caress it, to plant something of yourself in that “thing.” But it’s not just a “thing.” It’s some kind of highly-charged, vibrating thread that connects all of us, now, to all of them, then, and thus links all of us together in an unimaginable future.
So I wrote my own note on that visit to Pere Lachaise: “Oscar, you were insufferably arrogant. Thank you for giving me courage to be myself.” I slipped it in a crack near one of the wings. I cried a bit.
Would you like to do that some day? Alas, you cannot. Late last year, Oscar’s descendants decided to have his tomb cleaned and to erect a seven-foot glass barrier around it. No more touching. No more kissing. No more greasy hand stands or smeared lipstick. No more note-tucking, no matter how surreptitious.
How sad, and what a shame. To me, touching it mattered. Placing something of myself in it mattered. Watching others do the same mattered.
That moment was, for me, a moment of incarnational renewal. Physical stuff matters. Matter matters. And what a great reminder during this season after the Epiphany on the Christian calendar as we lurch our way towards Lent. God gets our attention best with the world of matter, with touchable things, with flesh – or with outlandishly carved stone.
Epiphanies are, by definition, new. But they can be prompted by old things, by relics – especially if you can touch them and kiss them.