Thursday, February 14, 2008
eBay and the Relics Trade
Relics have long been important to certain sections of the church, most notably the Roman Catholic. As defined by Wikipedia, a relic is "an object, especially a piece of the body or a personal item of someone of religious significance, carefully preserved with an air of veneration as a tangible memorial.” At the time of the Reformation a lucrative trade in relics became the center of Luther's concern as he witnessed not only an abuse of the practice's original intent, but also became increasingly disturbed by what to him was a displacement of Christ from the heart of the people's devotion and worship.
The peddling of relics, in fact, seemed to have no end, and unfortunately no apparent means of regulation against fraudulent claims and the exploitation of the common man who simply trusted what his religious leaders told him. Admittedly in modern times these gross abuses seemed largely absent - until, that is, eBay allowed the renewal of this ancient abuse.
According to an article by Lisa Miller in the February 11 issue of Newsweek (4-Sale: Bones of the Saints, page 16), you could buy on eBay last week ""strands of hair, allegedly from the head of St. Therese of Lisieaux, the patron saint of the Air Force. Bids started at $40. Or you could buy what looks like a fragment of bone supposedly from Satin Philomena...Bidding started at $49.99. Or if you wanted to splurge, you could purchase a 'splendid, rare, antique' reliquary containing bone fragments of six different saints from a dearer in Belgium. SStarting price: $625.”
Now, in fairness to eBay this is outside of their normal policy and they are being cooperative in cracking down on the practice. And in fairness to the Roman Catholic Church there is no official endorsement or encouragement of this practice, nor a groundswell of support from mainline members. "To the Catholic faithful, however, it is an abomination," Miller remarks regarding the sale of relics on eBay.
However, it does demonstrate the old temptation to profit by taking advantage of the innocence or naiveté of others. "The sale of relics on eBay may just be another small sign of our societies' lust for material satisfaction...." Miller notes. Nevertheless, it also renews an old debate regarding the place and role of relics themselves, even those officially sanctioned. As a Lutheran I naturally remain skeptical, if not opposed to the practice. But more than simply an issue of authenticity, for me the real issue is a fear of displacing the source of trust from the Word and the Blessed Sacrament, which are more than sufficient to grant assurance of God's presence and grace.