Reliquaries and Sepulchres

April 4, 2021



The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Reliquaries and Sepulchres”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 9: 18-26

While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in and knelt before him, saying, “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples. Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well.” Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And instantly the woman was made well. When Jesus came to the leader’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, “Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this spread throughout that district.

            There was a fire in a town on church street, the downtown row of houses of worship.  The first place to be engulfed in flames was the Roman Catholic Church.  People rushed to see it.  As they arrived, they caught sight of the priest emerging from the large front doors.  He was choking from the smoke, but seeing the people he thrust his hand in the air and said, “I saved the relic; we can rebuild.”

            As the fire spread, the people rushed down the block to see the synagogue that was now engulfed in flames.  As they arrived the synagogue doors burst open and the rabbi emerged, he too was choking and coughing.  Seeing the people he held up his hands in the air holding the Torah scrolls.  The people cheered.

            The crowd could see that the fire had now spread to the Presbyterian Church.  When they reached the front of the sanctuary they saw the pastor struggling to pull something through the front doors.  Smoke was swirling around him but he continued to fight and fight to pull a large object out of the church.  Finally, he was successful.  It was the photo copier.  The crowd stared at the pastor in confusion.  Relic, Torah, photocopier?  Sensing their lack of understanding he shouted to them, “it’s leased!”

            Presbyterians have not always been known for their sentimentality or emotions or adornment.  We may not be as stuffy as the Puritans or as dour as the images of Calvin convey, but sometimes we are a bit too sensible.  Okay, sometimes is a bit of a dodge; we’ve been this way for 500 years.  Best just to own it.  No longer the frozen chosen perhaps; we are more of the awkwardly enthusiastic. 

            For the last twenty years I have traveled to many places of devotion, holy sites, cathedrals, the Holy Land.  I have walked as a pilgrim on the Camino and sought the seven churches of Rome.  It was not always smooth sailing.  The challenge for me, like the photocopier, is that I have been trained to use history, not devotion; I am more at home in archeology than the incense of a holy site. Through this time though I have made some progress.  I may still be willing to rescue the leased photocopier, but my heart has found a home with the relics and the sepulchres.

            The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the holiest of holies for the Christian pilgrim, the site that launched three centuries of war to defend it, to keep it, the Holy Sepulchre was perhaps the hardest place for me to get, to find the place of worship and devotion.

            Part of the challenge is the church of the holy sepulchre is a swirling mass of languages and customs and faiths all smashed together, trying to work their way in to the small chamber of Jesus’ burial.  There is supposed to be a line in which to stand and wait, but it is more like a mosh pit of prayer.  And, if you are lucky enough to make into the small two-chamber site of Jesus’ burial, if you make it through the mosh, you need to be ready.  The orthodox monk who stands in the antechamber will start shouting after twenty seconds, “move, out, move, enough, go.”  You got twenty seconds tops.

            My first time in this swirling theological car wreck was not the stuff of life changing transformation.  I was terribly confused and befuddled and out of my depth.  Think Ralphie from the movie Christmas Story when he goes to see Santa and he’s confused and panics and then tumbles down the slide to find Randy just as dazed, that was me.  After waiting hours in line I was just orienting myself to the light, to the space, to what I was actually looking at when the monk began shouting. “Move, out, move, enough, go.”

            Through the years I have found my way back to the Sepulchre a number of times and I have experienced transformation, illumination, blessing, and mostly a place that is eternal.  At the end of the sermon we will go to this eternal place and what I experienced in Jerusalem in the Sepulchre a year ago.  But we need to pause before we do that, prepare ourselves so not miss our brief encounter with resurrection today. We need to consider the two healings Jesus offered in Capernaum, see how they illumine the sepulchre, make sense of our Easter moment.

            A synagogue leader kneels before Jesus and begs him to bring his daughter back to life; she has just died. Jesus concedes and follows him.  As they go along the way Jesus is touched by someone who has suffered from hemorrhages. Jesus tells her “your faith has made you well.” In that moment she is healed.  The path to the home where the daughter has died continues.  Upon arrival Jesus is met by the mourners.  People laugh at him when he says, she is only asleep, but they are filled with wonder when the young girl is brought back to life. 

            There are two things in these intertwined stories that helps us today, gives us a way to see the Easter message that he is risen. 

            The first help is the claim, your faith has made you well.  This sounds good, but if we are honest, we don’t know what this faith is that heals.  There is nothing in the story we might call faith or see as a definition.  Faith according to John Calvin is a firm and certain knowledge about God.  Through the last 500 years this firm and certain knowledge is found in right doctrine in dogma and creed and mostly in the witness that Jesus is God in our midst, incarnate, the Word made flesh. 

            It could be that a woman who has suffered as an outcast in a remote Galilean village in the 1st century has a prophetic grasp upon the Christologies of the church that will emerge in the next four centuries.  It could be she has an intuitive understanding of what God is up to in Jesus being the messiah.  But such a possibility is more about how we define faith than the faith of which Jesus said, “made you well.”

            Please don’t take what I am about to say as demeaning.  But the faith that makes you well when you are an outcast, suffering for twelve years, is not sophisticated, nor a prophetic grasp of theology. 

            Her faith was very simple.  She believed her tragedy would end.  That was her faith.  If I touch the cloak, I will be made well. She believed and it made her well.  Working with people who suffer for a long time, who are outcasts, I have found they can lose faith, trust, that their life will be restored, make their way unto freedom, be whole again.

            In the moment of Jesus’ words, your faith has made you well, in that moment the woman who suffered was rescued.

            The person who was healed next, though, was not the one who was rescued.  Jesus raised the young girl from the dead; he healed her; but the ones who were rescued were the parents.  Their life was about to be crushed by tragedy.  Jesus rescued them from the unimaginable heartbreak of losing a child.  Jesus raised the child, but he rescued the parents.

            What binds these two stories together is not faith so much as the element of tragedy and rescue.  It seems simple, but the tragic can get lost in the healing.  To suffer for twelve years and become an outcast, an object of fear and scorn: that is tragic.  To lose a child is an unimaginable tragedy.  In the first healing we are met with the faith, the belief, that the tragic will end, suffering will come to an end; life will become whole again.  In the second healing, there is a reversal, the tragedy is averted.  The loss did not come to pass. 

            The leader of the synagogue, the man who kneels, his faith is never mentioned by Jesus.  Can we just say his is more of desperation than a faith, a plea in the midst of life falling apart and not an articulated idea of God.  For me, the lack of articulation, the absence of a creed or proclamation, is the powerful image of faith here. As the hymn says, “no tongue can tell.”          

            About four stories below the holy sepulchre there is a shrine to St. Helena.  You find this shrine down a long winding set of stairs leading deeper and deeper into the earth.  Helena built the basilica we now call the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  Her name for it was Anastasia, or resurrection.  Legend has it Helena found the cross of Jesus buried deep beneath the earth and thus knew the tomb she found was also the cross of Jesus.

            The cross of Jesus, what came to be known as the true cross was the source, the place, from which all relics come.  A piece of this cross is the most coveted of relics.  In the 1000 years after she found the cross, so many fragments of the true cross were embedded in church altars that Martin Luther would say there are enough pieces of the true cross to fill a forest with trees.  That’s sixteenth century humor if it wasn’t clear.

            There are many parts of the ancient Jerusalem church where those who disdain of religion can scoff or frown at the fervor of devotion: the kissing of stones, the tears, the holy water, the candles lit for a moment and extinguished so to bring the light home.  And for many Protestants to stand inside the holy sepulchre and try to imagine how this relates to our understanding of the resurrection or the bible or tradition is so often just impossible.  I have seen many people emerge from the sepulchre looking dumbfounded. 

            You would think that the holiest site of the Christian faith would be a place of reflection, meditation, even just a calm place.  But it is not.  And that is what I stumbled into on my last visit.  The onset of the pandemic had emptied most of the holy sites.  There were still pilgrims, but very few.  Instead of surviving the mosh pit of prayer to be shouted at by the monk, I simply waited a few moments in an orderly line and was given extra moments to linger in the sepulchre.  The church was calm, peaceful.  And that was the moment I could see what is eternal in me.

            When you reach the sepulchre you are supposed to be in the chaos of our two stories, the tragic life of the outcast, the loss of the child.  The heaving crowd should lead you to their madness.  The faith you are to find there in the mosh pit of prayer is not a calm intellectual articulation of definitions about God and the trinity and the atoning sacrifice of the incarnate one.  The faith you are to find in the tomb is this: life can be restored and we can rescue people, keep tragedy at bay.

            In the pen of the Apostle Paul the resurrection would become a doctrine and a certainty; the cross and the tomb would be a kind of intellectual exploration of God’s intent and the satisfaction of a God who is angry at our sins.  But in the gospels, in our lessons today, the resurrection is not about certainty or a dogma; it is most certainly not about appeasing God with a sacrifice.  The resurrection is very simple: we can be healed of life’s tragedies; we can rescue one another from them.  For such he is risen; risen, indeed. Amen.

Bible References

  • Matthew 28:1 - 10
  • Matthew 9:18 - 26