“My Body,” Their Souls

Father Dwight (who seems to write more than Tim Keller) is back with a biblical justification for placing relics under the altar in Roman Catholic churches.

In Revelation 6:9 it is written: And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.

What does it mean “under the altar were the souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and the testimony they held.”?

In the early church, the remains of the martyrs were placed in above ground table tombs. Similar to the one shown here. During the times of persecution the church would gather in the catacombs for worship and the table tombs were used as the altar for Mass. Thus the remains of the martyrs were under the altar.

When they no longer had to worship in secret, the early Christians still wanted the presence of their martyrs to be near them so they opened the tombs, removed the bones and put them into jars which they then placed beneath the altar.

If you visit churches in Rome today you will often seen the jars with relics on display beneath the altar. More than that, you will often see the whole body of the saint on display beneath the altar. Here, for example is the altar beneath which is the relic of Pope St John XXIII.

Call me a literalist, but Rev 6:9 does not say “bodies.” It also says that the author was able to “see” something that is not visible. How do you see a soul?

So notice that when it comes to the body of Christ in the Mass, the bread becomes the very (true) body of Christ. After all, Christ said, “this is my body.” But when it comes to relics, the bones are memorials to the souls under the altar.

I’m confused. Maybe Zwingli can sort it out.

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Turning Your Whole Life (and part of your body) into Lent

We need the Lenten police. If we had them, then Reformed Protestants may not have so much material to confirm our prejudices against the church calendar. But until we do, we are stuck with evangelicals schlocking up the liturgical year and proving once again the need for reformation.

In this particular case, a story at Her.meneutics (get it?), an estrogen-friendly site sponsored by Christianity Today, informs about a church in Texas where the artist-in-residence designed a series of tattoos based on the stations of the cross for congregants to affix to their bodies and thereby observe Lent.

The phrase came to me again last month when my friend, artist Scott Erickson, told me about his Lenten-theme project for the congregation we serve, Ecclesia Church in Houston. He had designed a series of 10 tattoos representing the 14 traditional Stations of the Cross, and was asking volunteers to tattoo them to their bodies, as a way of observing the 40 days leading up to Good Friday.

Ecclesia is not a typical church: Not only do we have an “artist-in-residence,” the aforementioned Scott Erickson, but about half the congregation is already tattooed, says pastor Chris Seay. This year, instead of the annual Lenten art show, the inked congregants would become the Stations of the Cross, and stand in the gallery spaces where paintings or photographs would normally appear.

Mind you, these were not the kind of tattoos you can wash off after forty days. These would last the rest of your days. And to underscore evangelicals’ difficulty with numbers, ten stations would have to suffice for the normal fourteen. But never mind the inconsistencies, tattoos for Christians could perform a similar function as the numbers tattooed on Jews by the Nazis (I kid you not):

I remember the first time I saw my friend Sloan’s grandmother’s Auschwitz identification number on her forearm. It was Sloan’s 12th birthday party, a pool party, and her grandmother sat under an umbrella at a picnic table. Her short- sleeved blouse revealed five numbers stamped on her flesh in faded blue ink. At the time I was reading on repeat The Diary of Anne Frank, becoming obsessed with the Holocaust and my own questionable Judaism. But nothing, not then or now, has ever made the horrors of the Holocaust more real to me than seeing those five numbers. Something inside me wanted to shout—to call a halt to the game of Marco Polo, to the grilling of hot dogs, to fingers wrinkling too long in the water, and demand we recognize, at this backyard barbeque in suburban New Jersey, that the numbers on Sloan’s grandmother’s arm were telling a story. I can’t count how many times over the past 25 years I’ve dreamt about those numbers.

Our bodies tell our stories, whether we like it or not; as mothers and daughters, as wives and sisters and friends. As followers of Christ, our bodies should also tell his story.

As I say, we need Lenten police. If Roman Catholics and Lutherans would step up to the plate, I can devote my energies to W-W and its 24/7 piety.