A great number of churches have the relics of some past saint which may or may not
be genuine. Louis IX of France spent something like half of the French annual budget
to purchase the crown of thorns worn by Jesus (I wonder?) and Frederick III of Saxony
had a massive collection including supposedly a whisker from Jesus beard, threads
from the Virgin Mary’s veil and a twig from the burning bush.
Many such relics are kept hidden in very fancy boxes but on a holiday to the former
Yugoslavia, now Croatia, I remember visiting the massive parish church of St. Blaise,
Vodnjan capable of holding 5000 worshippers. Here relics were displayed behind glass
and these were certainly not for the squeemish, being the mummified remains of six
Italian saints dating back to the 12th century but which had been placed there for
safety in the early 19th century. One, St. Nicolosa, a Benedictine Nun who died in
1512 is well reputed to have healing properties and it is said that there have been
50 miraculous cures in close proximity of her body. I won’t go into further descriptions
of her and her fellows but let’s just say that whilst St Nicolosa is thought to be
the best preserved mummy in Europe none of them were a very pretty sight.
Three years ago six small bones were dug up in a monastery on the Bulgarian island
of Sveti Ivan - St. John which were said to be be bones from the hand of St. John
the Baptist. Also uncovered, close to the sarcophagus in which the bones were found
was a small box made from hardened volcanic ash bearing inscriptions in ancient Greek
that refer to John the Baptist and his feast day, and text asking God to “help your
servant Thomas”. The archaeologists believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria
via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where a relic which was said to be the right
hand of John the Baptist was kept until the tenth century.
A research team led by Thomas Higham, an atheist professor from the University of
Oxford, agreed to use carbon dating to test the veracity of the claims. Expectations
were low, but in June 2012 published their report. To their surprise the bones dated
from the correct period, the first century AD. And they were all from the hand of
the same man. And, even more surprising, this man came from what was then the ‘near
Professor Higham said that there was little that could prove beyond doubt that the
bones were, indeed, those of John the Baptist, but that it remains a distinct possibility.
Believers have queued for hours to see the bones, on display in Sofia, and the results
of the Oxford tests could make the city a renewed centre of pilgrimage for Christians
from around the world.