The Amazing, Colossal Baptist

Reader Mara writes in to ask: what’s happened to all the saint relics from the Middle Ages? Are they in museums? Do you guys trade them or sell them to each other?

Oh goodness me, no. In fact there’s a special sin on the books for that very thing: paying money — or trading for — sacred objects or spiritual services. It’s called simony, and it’s the only sin I’m aware of that’s actually named for a person. Simon Magus was the fellow’s name, a magician of sorts from the days just after the crucifixion of Jesus. He observed St. Peter and St. John laying their hands on believers and imbuing them with the Holy Spirit. Seemed to him like a pretty good racket — something he could charge a good buck for — so he offered to pay Peter and John in exchange for teaching him the trick. You can judge for yourself how well that worked out for Simon.


I confess there’s something oddly cool about having a sin named after you. Perhaps one day the church will name one after me: Joe-ry, the sin of writing cheeky blog posts about aspects of one’s own religion. But wasn’t I supposed to be answering a question?

Ah yes, relics. With the rise of Protestantism (and its subsets, especially Evangelicalism), Catholics have gotten increasingly sheepish about venerating actual physical objects. It isn’t done all that much anymore. Which is not to say that there aren’t relics around, especially in Europe and parts of Asia. There people may not be as interested in relics as they once were, but many churches are proud to claim ownership of a saint’s remains, especially one of the really well-known ones.

I remember once attending a lecture on the subject of relics in which the priest/scholar remarked that if you put together all the femurs, ribs and digits that are reputed to have belonged to John the Baptist you’d have a 15-foot-tall giant, a man who strode the earth like a colossus. Now, we Catholics aren’t famous for reading the Bible, but I don’t remember anything like that from catechism class. I’d better go look it up.

6 thoughts on “The Amazing, Colossal Baptist”

  1. If I remember one of my medieval studies classes correctly, the relics of John the Baptist also included two heads.

    And while buying and selling relics may be a sin, giving them as gifts is another matter – for a while it was a popular pastime for nobility who wanted to get in good with their local bishop to go off on pilgrimage, pick up some relics, and present them to the church on their return…leading to the old joke that asks, why are the hills of Lebabnon bare? -Because every church in Christendom has a piece of the true cross.

    1. I think there’s at least one 50’s horror movie on that subject as well. As for the true cross, a nun once told me that all the pieces would make a cross 50 feet tall. However I think someone did some research on that and found that there weren’t all that many pieces (at least not anymore). Thanks for the email, Jane!

  2. I go to a church where the priests have a goodly collection of relics. One in particular caught my eye – it was from Titus Brandsma. He was a Carmelite priest who wrote against the Nazis and paid the price. He was killed in Dachau and his body cremated. The relic was a piece of his hat. They also have a stole that belonged to St. Francis Xavier whose body is at the cathedral in Goa, India.

    I actually think relics are kind of cool. Museums and historical buildings have their own relics like Jane Austen’s writing desk, Abraham Lincoln’s hat or George Washington’s teeth.

    1. True enough. Artifiact/relic…there’s a blurry line there. Thanks Ellen!

      – Joe

  3. There’s still plenty of Christian relics around, even here in the US. Usually they’re kept in cathedrals or in monasteries. Episcopal and Lutheran churches sometimes will have relics, also, but it’s slightly rare. If you go hang out with folks from the Eastern Orthodox churches, you’re (slightly) more likely to find them in day-to-day use than in Roman Catholic churches. Matter of fact, last summer I went with a friend as she venerated the relics of St. John of San Francisco and Shanghai at the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco. Some Buddhists also have traditions of relics, but I’m not quite as familiar with those as with Christian ones.

    Sales of relics in the United States are actually covered by the same laws that cover the trading of all human remains– as in, it is illegal to pay for the transfer of human organs, bone, or tissue.

    1. Sort of a secular version of simony. Very interesting. Thanks Mary Sue!

      – Joe

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