Austria is the place to go, I’m told, if you want to see some of Christendom’s greatest treasures—treasures like a splinter from the cross upon which Jesus hung; one of the nails that pierced his flesh; and a thorn from the crown that mocked his reign.
Upon learning that the other day, my first thought was ‘Austria? Really?’
I guess on some level, I would have expected such relics from Christ’s passion to be housed in the Holy Land…or at the very least, in Rome. In other words, a bit closer to the official action in modern-day Christianity.
Turns out, the relics are part of the treasury known today as the Austrian crown jewels. Beautiful stuff. Magnificent, really. Still, it struck me as a little odd for a landlocked central European country—long past its political hay-day—to wind up as the home for such a stash. So I did a little digging, and discovered that before these sacred jewels and relics became part of Austria’s heritage, they had served a different power base: The Holy Roman Emperor.
At last, it started to make sense: Vienna got dibs on these great treasures, because Vienna is connected through the ages to what was once a very big deal in ‘official’ Christendom.
But here’s the thing: Nobody talks much about the Holy Roman Emperor anymore. The bloom is off that rose. And that got me thinking about the feast that we in the Roman rite will celebrate this weekend – the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. It’s an old church—one of the oldest in Rome (originally consecrated in 324 AD). Even so, it seems odd to venerate what’s really just a stack of stones. One day, this building too will go the way of the Holy Roman Empire.
Of course, the feast isn’t really designed to celebrate a building at all. The readings chosen for the liturgy make that much clear, particularly the section from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
‘No one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there,’ Paul writes. ‘Namely, Jesus Christ.’
We honor our history…and make pilgrimage to holy sites…and venerate relics…not because they are important in and of themselves. Rather, they remind us of our vital connection to the most precious jewel of all: Jesus, the Risen One, who lives in our hearts today.
He lives there, certainly, in the person of my cousin David and his wife Jamie – who are celebrating their 30th anniversary with a trip to Austria, and who sent me the photos of the holy relics from Vienna. (What a precious treasure they and their family have been to all who know them throughout those 30 years!)
And perhaps most remarkably, where Jesus lives, he seems to prefer simple digs: An insubstantial wafer of wheat. Something to feed us, not dazzle us. He lives in the Eucharist, as a way to nourish us…so that we can become living stones in the kingdom that will never end.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.