Dark Devotional: The Relics Hunters

by Michelle Arnold

He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground (Luke 22:44).

In May 2000, I was invited along on one of Catholic Answers’ pilgrimages to the Holy Land. For someone who had only been out of the country once, as a six-month-old baby on my parents’ trip to Canada, I was thrilled to be traveling to Israel. I was a customer service representative at the time, and one of my co-workers in the cage (as we called the room where customer service worked) asked me for a favor.

Could I bring her back a memento from the Garden of Gethsemane? Christ’s agony in the garden was her favorite mystery of the rosary. Even a leaf from one of the trees would suffice, she assured me.

Sure, I said, happy to oblige. I had no idea what the task would entail.

The Church of All Nations, also known as the Basilica of the Agony is built over bedrock believed to have been the spot where Jesus prayed before his arrest. As our group approached the church, I was startled to see that the trees outside were surrounded by a fence. There was a walkway around them, but no way to get close.

That was necessary, I learned, because some pilgrims weren’t satisfied with taking a single leaf from the trees (which, in retrospect, was itself one leaf too many when multiplied by thousands of visitors every year). Not long before we visited, someone had chopped off an entire branch from the ancient trees.

At the time though, I wasn’t interested in pondering social responsibility toward the cultural patrimony of mankind. I was thinking about my promise to my friend. All I needed was something I could take home to her. I scanned the walkway as we were herded quickly toward the church, hoping an errant leaf had blown free from a tree and landed on the path. No such luck.

I was just about to give up when I spotted a small chunk of rock ahead on the walkway. We were being fast-walked to the church amid a gaggle of pilgrims, with no room to stop for a photograph, much less a pebble from the path. In the crush of people, reaching for it would also be a good way to get my fingers stepped on. But I was determined.

In the end, I timed it perfectly. I leaned down, grabbed the pebble, and moved on with my prize clutched in my fist. I suspect it also helped that I was twenty-some years younger at the time. My friend was thrilled to have a piece of rock from Gethsemane, especially since it would last much longer than a leaf.

Humans seem to be relics hunters, by nature. It’s not just a Catholic idiosyncrasy, but a human trait. Of course, motives for the relics hunting vary widely. The tomb raiders in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings wanted the riches that were buried with the pharaohs. Marine archaeologists search for the wreckage of lost ships both out of a desire to recover lost history and to make a name for themselves as adventurers. Groupies just want a piece of their favorite celebrity, whether it be Elvis Presley’s belt, Marilyn Monroe’s dress, or Andy Warhol’s dirty napkin.

What is it about relics that appeals to us? I think perhaps it is the sense of connection to the original owner. Even those who hunt for relics for their monetary value alone know that the monetary value is driven by the connection to someone in the distant past. Artifacts from the Titanic are not sold for their intrinsic value alone, but for their connection to that ship and its tragic history.

Even the Bible itself is, in a sense, a relic. The manuscripts were written, collected, preserved, replicated, and passed down through the centuries. The older a manuscript, the closer in time it is to the person who wrote it, the more valuable it usually is in the eyes of Scripture scholars. When Bedouin shepherds stumbled across ancient scrolls at Qumran, it was hailed as one of the most important finds in archaeological history, precisely because of the age of the scrolls and their connection to the biblical period.

As a relic, the Bible gives us a sense of connection to those whose lives it describes. My friend wanted a leaf from a tree in the Garden of Gethsemane because the trees there stretch back to the time of Christ. She was satisfied with the pebble I found because it could serve as a reminder of the large bedrock Jesus is believed to have laid upon as he prayed during his agony.

When we hear the Gospel readings of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection during Holy Week, it is the little details that capture our imagination and invite us to ponder the meaning of what Christ did for us. The sweat that seemed to be like blood, the crown of thorns made in mockery of his claim of kingship, the cross on which he died, the burial cloths that Peter and John found abandoned in his empty tomb.

It’s easy to mock the early Christians’ fascination with these remnants of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; to dismiss the relics as curiosities and those collect them as superstitious. But it’s the connection that brings meaning to what otherwise would be unremarkable ephemera.

But even the scoffers sometimes catch their breath at the thought that the world might lose this connection to Christ. During Holy Week 2019, the world watched on in shock and grief when Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire, causing significant damage to the ancient French cathedral. First responders risked their lives to protect a priest who ran into the cathedral to save the reserved Eucharist and what is believed to have been the crown of thorns Jesus wore during his trial and walk to Calvary. Not only were the firefighters hailed as heroes, so was the priest.

Holy Week begins this week. It’s a time of remembrance, of reflection on Scripture and what it reveals about Jesus’ last days of public ministry. But more than that, Holy Week is a time of connection—connection with Christ, his Mother, his disciples, and with all the generations that followed precisely because of the links to Christ that have been carefully maintained by Christians down through the centuries.

Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.

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