“Death to the Atheists!” the mob chanted, and believe it or not, they were talking about the Christians living in Smyrna in the second century. I know this is a bit of a head-scratcher, but in their minds people who believed in the gods had icons. The notion of an invisible God made no sense. The notion of a crucified God was laughable.
We don’t know exactly what initially got this crowd riled up. It could have been anything from boredom to an earthquake. Christians were regularly blamed for natural disasters because obviously their unbelief was angering the gods, who in turn sent earthquakes as punishment.
Fortunately, we are much more enlightened about such things today.
“Bring Polycarp!” someone else shouted, and thus the manhunt for the bishop of Smyrna began.
He wasn’t hard to catch. He was eighty-six years old and power scooters hadn’t been invented yet. So soon, the crowd brought him before the proconsul for questioning. Things went south fairly fast. The proconsul wanted Polycarp to deny his faith and go home, which seemed like a reasonable request. But alas, Polycarp refused. Losing his patience, the judge yelled, “Out with the atheist!”
To which Polycarp yelled back. “Yes! Out with the atheists!” And he pointed to the crowd.
Well, that didn’t help.
And so Polycarp was tied to a stake on top of a pile of wood that was set on fire. Miraculously, a gust of wind bent the flames outward like a sail, so that Polycarp’s flesh wasn’t burnt. Instead, his body appeared like “bread that is baked,” which, according to the chronicler, is much more appealing than human barbecue.
More importantly, it smelled good, which will become a hallmark of sainthood that will become popular in the Middle Ages known as odor sanctitatis or “odour of sanctity.” Though instead of baked bread, the smell of flowers will be associated with the saint’s body.
Frustrated with how long this was taking, the executioner approached Polycarp and stabbed him with a dagger, and out from the wound came a dove and a copious amount of blood that extinguished the fire.
Thus ended the life of Polycarp, but the Romans still weren’t satisfied. They had his body tossed onto a funeral pyre until nothing was left but bones.
Members of Polycarp’s church collected these relics, which they described as, “more precious as the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold.” They then “deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom.”
To the best of our knowledge, this practice was the first “saint day” in which the church gathered to not only retell the saint’s story, but also to hope for a miracle. The services were called a refrigerium, which will now make you view that leftover ham shank in the fridge in a completely different way. The word literally means “refreshment” and was used in conjunction with a meal that was eaten during the martyr’s service, possibly in the catacombs or in a martyrium, which was a special building over the grave.
From this humble beginning, the veneration of the saints became wildly popular. Augustine defended this observance, declaring that the skeletons were “temples of faith.” Honoring them was no different than honoring a living holy man because of his wisdom. Cyril of Jerusalem went even further, declaring that the corpse had an “intrinsic power” because of the “virtuous soul that once inhabited it.”
Unfortunately, this practice also gave rise to unscrupulous fraud and bizarre behavior. In the fifth century, two heads of John the Baptist appeared; and yet, both were accepted as credible. And in the Middle Ages, Hugh of Lincoln visited the abbey of Fécamp wanting to see the arm of Mary Magdalene. When presented to him, he gnawed on it with his teeth, “first with his incisors and finally with his molars.” When the abbot, in shock, confronted him, Hugh coolly replied something to the effect, “Well, I just consumed the body and blood of Christ in mass. How is this any different?”
It’s easy for us to roll our eyes at such conduct. And Protestants in the 16th century spared no ink deriding the veneration of relics. In fact, one of the most scathing (and hilarious) criticisms came from a Catholic scholar named Erasmus in a work entitled, The Praise of Folly.
But before we throw the Christ child out with the holy bath water, we would be wise to remember that our faith didn’t jump from the first-century Apostles to us. It was passed down to us from one generation to the next through great men and women of faith. Forgetting them is like forgetting our childhood: we lose a vital piece of who we are.
So I encourage to pay attention to the saint days. Read their stories, their writings, and their prayers. You’ll find wisdom, inspiration, and yes, sometimes silliness. And in the process, hopefully, you will also have deeper appreciation for Jesus’ decision to choose us as His bride.
Just don’t gnaw on any saintly bones. That’s gross.
Note: This article originally appeared on Patheos .com
Sources: “The Martydom of Polycarp” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. And The Age of Pilgrimage by Jonathan Sumption.
Photo credit: A.Currell on Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC