Holy bones - skeleton seized by Greek cops

A monk has been detained in Athens for trying to smuggle a nun’s remains out of the country. Why did he do it?

Airport police find a lot of strange things in their line of work. But when cops at Athens Airport opened the luggage of a 42-year-old monk this week nothing could have prepared them for what they discovered: a full size human skeleton.

The remains belonged to a nun who had died four years previously. The monk and his accomplices had stolen the bones at a memorial service and were trying to smuggle them back to their Cypriot monastery.

But why would anyone steal bones? A Cypriot Archbishop described the act as ‘sacrilege’. But the monk tried to explain. The nun, he said, was such an outstanding paragon of Christian virtue that he wanted to worship her bones as holy relics.

This might seem like a very strange thing to do but, in fact, Christianity has a long tradition of devotion to objects that are associated with saints or with the life of Jesus.

Sometimes these ‘relics’ are small – scraps of cloth a saint has touched, for example, or something they used, like a pen or a rosary. But many churches and cathedrals around Europe hold holy body parts, or even entire bodies.

For believers, sacred remains have mystical properties. Some are said to be ‘incorruptible’, meaning that the flesh doesn’t rot in the usual way.

Even when flesh does rot, bones are described as having a honey colour, or as giving off a sweet fragrance.

This, some Christians believe, is because the bodies of the truly pious are transformed by the Holy Spirit, taking on some of the essence of divine power. Relics have been said to perform miracles, whether healing the sick or answering prayers.

In the Middle Ages, unscrupulous traders made fortunes by selling fake relics to unwary believers. The Protestant thinker John Calvin was famously amused by the number of churches that believed they owned pieces of the True Cross (on which Jesus was crucified). ‘If all the pieces that could be found were collected together,’ he said, ‘they would make a large ship-load.’

Different doctrines
In general, Protestant Christians are suspicious of relics. They think it’s what’s on the inside that counts, not how close you can get to old bits of skeleton.

But many believers from older Christian traditions like Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy perhaps take a more magical view of the universe. They regard the divine spirit as mysterious and in some ways distant – relics are a way of getting closer to their god.

You Decide

  1. Do you think people or objects can ever have supernatural powers? What does ‘supernatural’ even mean?
  2. Friendship bracelets, favourite shoes, lucky charms - why do humans invest inanimate objects with so much emotional significance?

Activities

  1. Most of us have special objects in our own lives. Write a short piece describing something that means a lot to you.
  2. From your own research, draw a map of the world showing roughly where different religious groups live. Try to add a little bit of detail about each one.

Some People Say...

“Believing in a god is the same as believing in fairies and unicorns.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I didn’t know there were so many kinds of Christian!
There are loads. As disagreements arose about theology and ritual, the religion split into many different branches. The main three are Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant.
What are the biggest relics in Christianity?
Some are obvious, like fragments of the True Cross or the Turin Shroud, which some think covered Jesus’ body in his tomb. Others are a little weirder, like St Augustine’s elbow. The most famous relic is the mythical Holy Grail, which they say Jesus drank from at the Last Supper.
And do other religions have relics?
Yes. Many Islamic relics are stored in Istanbul. Buddhists keep relics of the Buddha (his tooth is in a temple in Sri Lanka). And there are relics outside religion: at a recent auction fans bid to buy Michael Jackson’s sock, or a jacket worn by Elvis Presley.

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