It’s a natural instinct to keep meaningful tokens. Anyone who has lost loved ones knows the impact of an old photo, a handwritten letter, or a crackling recorded message. In a way, the ones we have lost become present. Emotion rises along with memories and love’s affection. An old book, jewelry, an article of clothing … we keep these things as mementos. With the saints, however, we not only keep things of the person, but we also keep the body of the person.
The 25th session of Trent’s second decree teaches us why the bodies of saints are different. Relics of bone, hair, and even blood once belonged to bodies possessing a two-fold dignity: (1) being living members of the Body of Christ and (2) being temples of the Holy Spirit. The council states that, through venerating these relics, God bestows gifts on men. Additionally, those who oppose this teaching, “the Church has already long since condemned.”
This condemnation is not found among Dominicans. Today the Order of Preachers celebrates the Translation of Holy Father Dominic. ‘Translation’ is an unfortunate translation. The Latin, elevatio corporis, brings forth the transcendent quality of this feast. We don’t celebrate a horizontal change of word for word moving from tongue to tongue. Rather, we celebrate the vertical change of the profane to the holy. On this day in 1233, St. Dominic’s remains were elevated, celebrated, and laid to rest in the Arca di San Domenico–the exquisite sarcophagus complete in 1267.
Though the brethren lifted St. Dominic from the tomb, it was God who elevated the body of St. Dominic. Our Father in heaven honored our Holy Father Dominic by a miracle (ST III.6). The moment the stone slab covering the coffin was split, the broken seal emitted an indescribable, sweet fragrance. So potent was the smell that those who touched its source, St. Dominic’s bones, themselves began to emit the aroma. Martha feared the stench of Lazarus’ four days in the tomb (Jn 11:38-44), but the friars rejoiced in the sweet-smelling oblation of St. Dominic’s 11 years in the tomb.
The relics of St. Dominic, like all other relics, remind us of not only the saint but the One the saint served. By this miracle, through his lowly servant St. Dominic, God makes real the words of St. Paul:
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2 Cor 2:15-16)
Smells, like a mother’s perfume, conjure the deepest memories we have of a person. The smell of St. Dominic works in an analogous way, but with an important difference. The brothers would not have been reminded of the old smell of the perspiring friar. They would have been reminded of the Resurrection. Christ by dying and rising has transformed the decay of death into the fragrance of eternal life. Relics do not just remind us of a life lived, but a life living.