IT was only when the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire that the rest of Christendom learned of a rare artifact of Catholic faith—the Crown of Thorns—that had been there for some 800 years. We are not talking of symbolic representation or a creative depiction of what we have always seen on paintings or works of art, or in books; we are dealing with the real thing. The very same crown, as the custodian of the relic declared in the documentary, was used some 2,000 years ago in one of the most violent and dramatic events in human history: the Crucifixion and Death of the Christ.
It is written how the Roman soldiers mocked the Saviour and went on to gather dry thorns around the hill of Golgotha and fashioned them into a crown fit for a “King.” The same object, now a relic, was now in the Notre Dame cathedral, held up during processions at designated days, and leaving devotees and the curious awestruck.
The crown of thorns is kept in what appears to be a transparent material (a hard glass?); you could see through the glazed surface old thorns and twigs and the question you ask is: How were these natural materials preserved?
There is a history: in Constantinople where it was kept for a long time, the sacred relic was sold to a Venetian nobleman/businessman. But then, for some reason, a King of France was summoned by his cousin to re-acquire it, to give his reign prestige. That was how the Crown of Thorns ended in France, in Paris. Then came the great fire. A fireman was assigned this time to secure the relic just when the spires of the great church were all crumbling one by one. And so the brave fireman went inside and finally got the Crown, which was on display, only to discover that it was a copy. The true crown was in a vault somewhere inside the massive cathedral.
In Spain, there is one majestic claim: the Holy Grail is there. The Santo Grial. The Arthurian Legends made this “sacred object” famous and popular. It is said King Arthur ordered his Knights of the Round Table to look for it. For a long time, the “Cup” from which Jesus Christ drank and turned the wine into his blood was part of an enduring quest so much so that the noun, the Holy Grail, had come to mean anything you impossibly hoped for, the elusive dream of each one of us. But the power of the cup went beyond its sacrality; kings and thugs looked to it as the source of everlasting life in the physical sense of it—eternal youth. No one ever bothered to check their metaphors at the door, and go back to “life eternal” as an ideal more theological than dermatological.
The crisis in Spain though is that there are three women—all historians and, I suppose, believers—who all posit different facts about the provenance of the “true” cup.
Of all these relics, we Filipinos could identify more with the Holy Cross. It was the Empress Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, who ventured into an epic pilgrimage to Jerusalem in search of the Holy Cross. The documentary Mysteries of the Faith refreshes us about what she did upon arrival: she sponsored a massive excavation and when her men stumbled upon three crosses, she went on to conduct a test. It is stated in the documentary how the empress placed a dead body on each cross and waited for some results. The first two crosses yielded “nothing”; the third one (the third is always the magical point) was where the magic happened. When a dead body was placed on it, it rose alive. The empress knew then it was the “true cross.”
Brought back to Constantinople, the cross was said to have been chopped and separated – each part made into a gift to important personages. Some of these “splinters” reached as far as the New World, in Rio de Janeiro, and one even to the Philippines.
In another episode, a murdered magistrate’s blood-stained shirt is declared by one of the most senior cardinals as the Church’s latest holy relic.
There are three ways of viewing this documentary: one is to be an ardent believer, the type that would not question the veracity of any claim with regard to the relics; the other is the critical believer who thinks it is not disrespectful to question the facts about one’s faith. There is another audience in between the two: the person who sees relics as wondrously compelling symbols that can teach us and re-view for us our own religion, and all the appurtenant rites and ideas around it.
Mysteries of the Faith is a four-part docuseries, narrated by David Harewood. It examines the artifacts that have assumed divine and, at times, magical power. Are these relics sources of healing and miracles? Or have they become manipulable items for the institutional church?
Whatever they are, the relics, as shown in the documentary, have ceased to be merely materials but have become representations of a faith that is built more on the mysterious and tremendous rather than the simple and human. Critics have pointed to the documentary as needing a more nuanced treatment. I agree with this because relics, to borrow the concept of John Eade and Michael J. Sallnow in Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, create a “sacred center…which appears as a vessel into which pilgrims devoutly pour their hopes, prayers and aspirations. And in a perfect illustration of the classic Marxist model of fetishization and alienation, the shrine then appears to its devotees as if it were itself dispensing the divine powers and healing balm which they seek.”
Mysteries of the Faith streams on Netflix.