Throughout much of history, at the heart of every village, town, and city in Europe, there laya dead body. This was not the mystical body of Christ, symbolically consumed by his followers in the sacred rite of mass.
Relics are an example of what James Frazer called “contagious magic.” Anything that Jesus, Mary, or the saints touched was thought to retain the glow of sanctity, so items of their clothing, and objects from the life of Christ, particularly pieces of the True Cross, were also venerated as holy. Even the ground they walked on or were buried in was considered sacred and magical.
The rite celebrating the arrival of new relics was fundamental for initiating their magic.
Much of the history of art in medieval Europe can be seen as the history of efforts to channel the magical power of sacred remains.
– Andrew Butterfield reviewing three new books about relics and medieval religion in the August 18, 2011 issue of The New Republic
Dear Mr. Butterfield,
I assume you are not a practicing Catholic, otherwise you would know that for us, we do not “symbolically” consume the body and blood of Christ at Mass, but consume His actual body and blood via the communion Eucharist (and wine), which has been transformed by the power of a miracle via the presiding priest at Mass. Apparently you don’t believe in the power of miracles either, as you keep conflating the word magic and miracle — God’s power is manifested here on Earth via miracles. Magic is usually a trick performed by a magician. My friend Lydia McGrew discusses the difference in this excellent post:
There are, I’m sure, many reasons why contemporary people are attracted to magic. But one attraction of magic has got to be the thrill of making the supernatural real, of having real things happen via something other than the rather boring agency of natural means. To be sure, in an age when we can speak with some truth of the miracles of science, it hardly seems that one needs to turn to magic for that. When I was a child the Internet would have seemed akin to magic. Still, one knows in one’s heart that there is some natural explanation for all of this, and one even has some idea of what it is, and that takes the magic out of it. Which is all to the good, in the end.
I imagine that Jesus’ followers must have been awestruck when He healed a blind man or made the lame to walk: He really did it, just like that! He has the power to do that. It’s real! It’s a miracle.
Magic promises that thrill, and promises to give that thrill to the magician: Now you can be the one who can “really do it.” That’s why, in Acts, Simon Magus (that is, Simon the Magician) offered to pay the apostles for the power to confer the Holy Spirit on people (Acts 18:17-24)! He believed that this “Holy Spirit” thing was a new form of magic power and wanted to be able to do what the apostles did. Peter responded angrily, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”
The difference between miracle and magic is that miracles are the gift of God. Even the extraordinary abilities (e.g., the ability to do some miracles) which God gave to his apostles when founding the church were recognized by Peter as gifts that came immediately from God in each individual case, not as “powers” which the apostles possessed in themselves. There is no techne, no magical art, to receiving or bestowing the gifts of God.
Moreover, God does not always do miracles. Many people are not healed. Most people (to put it mildly) are not raised from the dead.
God bestows His miraculous gifts sparingly to remind us that they are gifts. We seek after signs and wonders, after the excitement of personally seeing the real supernatural in action. (Wow! He really did it! It really happened! She was healed just like that!) But for most of us, the sign that is given is the sign, as Jesus said, of Jonah the Prophet (Matthew 12:38-40). For as Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, so Our Lord rose after three days in the tomb. Powerful evidence? Indeed. But it happened a long time ago, and the study of it does not, for most of us, bring that special magic thrill. And that’s all right.
Meanwhile, we walk by faith, hope, and charity. What we have instead of signs and wonders before our eyes or within our power are prayer, obedience, love, and Holy Communion, which, whatever else it is, looks just like bread and wine.
All these, too, are gifts.