And when he had said these things, while they looked on, he was raised up: and a cloud received him out of their sight. (Acts of the Apostles 1:9)
Jesus has Ascended to heaven not only in his soul, but in his body also. The very body which he received from the Virgin Mary, which grew to adulthood, which suffered, died and was buried, which rose again and remained for forty days – this very body has been taken up into heaven.
While it is true that some have claimed to possess first class relics of Christ (e.g. The Holy Prepuce), the historical veracity of these claims is dubious. Setting aside the historical question of the authenticity of the various first class relics of Jesus, we would do well to consider the theological question: Is it even possible that a piece of Jesus’ body could remain on earth as a first class relic after his Ascension? Given that the very body of Christ has been raised, glorified, and taken up into heaven, could there be any remnants of the body of our Savior still on earth?
The Eucharist (even in the case of a Eucharistic miracle) is not a first class relic of Jesus
The Eucharist is really, truly, and substantially the body and blood of Jesus. Nevertheless, the Eucharist is not a first class relic of our Savior. Although “Christ is present whole and entire in His physical ‘reality’” and we may even say that he is “corporeally present”, we also add that this presence is “not in the manner in which bodies are in a place.” (Paul VI, Mystici Corporis 46)
While the Eucharist is truly Jesus, and Christ is really and corporeally present in the Eucharist; we must admit that he is not present in his proper species (i.e. as he was present on earth and is present now in heaven), but in the sacrament. We can easily recognize the difference between a relic and the Eucharist – the relic is only a part of the saint, but Christ is wholly present in the Eucharist.
Even in the case of a Eucharistic miracle, we must not conclude that the sacrament has become a relic of Jesus. If, as in the case of Lanciano, the Host physically changes and becomes heart tissue; we must not think that the Eucharist has become a first class relic, being Jesus’ heart. No, even in this miraculous occurrence, it is not simply a piece of Jesus’ heart tissue which is present, but the whole Christ – his entire body is sacramentally present in the Host. Again, in the case of the miraculous change of the Precious Blood into physical drops of blood, it is not that only a drop of Christ’s blood is present but rather the whole Christ is present in each and every ounce of the Precious Blood.
Theoretically, there could be remnants of Jesus’ body after the Ascension
While it is certain that the physical body of Jesus, the very same which was born and which died, has been raised up and glorified; we need not necessarily conclude that each and every particle of Christ’s physical body has been reunited and glorified. For example, it would be quite absurd to think that all of our Savior’s hair and finger nail clippings were reunited with his body. If we consider all the portions of the Lord’s body which had been separated from him throughout his life (from sweat, to blood, to tears, to saliva, to skin particles, to hair and nails, etc.), we must admit that it would be utterly absurd to think that all of this would be reunited in the resurrection.
St. Thomas Aquinas discusses this matter with his usually clarity: In the Summa Contra Gentiles (Book IV, chapter 81), the Angelic Doctor tells us that, since a man may gain or lose hair in this life without suffering an essential change in his body, it is clear that all that hair does not need to be restored to him in the resurrection in order for him to receive his own body once again. Thus, it is not necessary that each and every particle that was ever a part of a man’s body should be restored to him in the resurrection.
From this it is clear that, at least theoretically, it would be possible for some remnant of our Savior’s body to remain even after his Resurrection and Ascension. A lock of hair, or a finger nail, or a drop of blood – any of these could certainly remain without compromising the integrity of the risen body of the Lord.
Would these remains be relics?
Given that it is theoretically possible for some portion of what was once united to the Lord’s body to remain on earth even after the Ascension, we must consider whether these remains would properly be called “relics”. If a lock of hair or a drop of blood were left to remain on earth after the Ascension, would this be a first class relic of the Lord?
Part of what makes a first class relic to be a relic is that the saint, from whose body the relic is derived, is dead. In this regard, it is helpful to consider the pronouncement of the Council of Trent which states “that the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ – which bodies were the living members of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Ghost, and which are by Him to be raised unto eternal life, and to be glorified – are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men.” (Session XXV)
The logic of the Council is that the relics of the bodies of the saints are to be venerated on two accounts: Firstly, they were once united to these saints. Secondly, they will again be united to the saints through the general resurrection.
Hence, we recognize that the very logic of first class relics points to a period prior to the resurrection of the body. Therefore, as the bodies of Jesus and Mary have already been raised and glorified in heaven, it is not at all clear that any remnants which may still be on the earth (i.e. locks of hair or drops of blood, etc.) would be true first class relics. These hypothetical remnants would certainly not be united to Jesus in the Resurrection, since he has already been raised (and the presumption must be that they were left behind).
When a soul is separated from the body, it is possible for each and all remnants to be venerated as relics. However, once the soul is reunited with the body in the resurrection, any remnants left behind would no longer be relics – for they no longer have any real connection to the soul and will never be reunited to the soul.
Therefore, I propose that, even in the case of supposed first class relics of Jesus or of Mary, there can be no first class “relics” properly so-called of the Savior or of his Blessed Mother. They have been raised and their bodies have been glorified, anything which may possibly remain ought not to be considered a relic.
The sense of the faithful and the case of St. John the Beloved
Finally, it is worth noting that the faithful have always had a sense that there are no relics or remnants of those whose bodies have been taken up into heaven prior to the general resurrection. We can see this quite clearly in the popular medieval belief in the assumption of St. John the Beloved.
On account of the fact that there seem to be no first class relics of St. John the Apostle, many have speculated that he was taken up into heaven. Indeed, even St. Thomas Aquinas seems to believe that St. John was assumed when he writes: “We should say that he [i.e. John] died and arose with his body, indicated by the fact that his body cannot be found.” Moreover, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide is deeply impressed by this fact and, although he gives a very strong argument that St. John was not assumed, he concludes: “Be this as it may, it is not possible at the present time to find any other relics of the body of St. John.” Clearly, the absence of relics is an indication that the individual has been assumed into heaven.
[In an earlier article, I have argued that the Beloved Disciple was not, in fact, assumed into heaven; but I point to this medieval devotion as an indication of the intuitive sense of the faithful.]
Given this general intuition of the people of God – that there are no relics or remains of any sort from those whose bodies have been taken up into heaven – we are inclined to conclude that, in the cases of Jesus and his Mother, there are neither relics nor any remains whatsoever of their bodies. While it is not at all likely that each and every particle that was ever united to Jesus’ body has been raised up, we speculate that the remnants have been utterly dissolved to their simplest state and have been reconstituted under some other material form.