But bones do have an air of mystery about them. There’s a certain reverence to standing in a museum hall packed with femurs, skulls, teeth, and questions. We are invited to reflect on the life of something bigger than us. Something imaginable, but not altogether knowable.
And we pilgrims encountered something similar when we arrived at the Church of Saint Demetrios in Thessaloniki. The church itself contains layers of mystery: in the seventh century the church burnt down and had to be rebuilt. While the destruction was extensive, efforts were made to preserve what artwork remained. As a result the building is filled with partial mosaics: an angel face and wing covering the corner of a blank wall, Saint Demetrios standing with hands extended in blessing, beautiful even in their incompleteness. Something imaginable, but not altogether knowable.
I joined in, crossing myself and kissing the mystery. Not because I believe Demetrios’ remains are any holier than someone else’s and not because I wanted a miracle. Rather, my own faith teaches me that God uses the ordinary to point us toward the wonderful. We encounter the unknowable by working with what we do know: blood, bone, and dust.
Today the dust of a dead saint and the loving devotion of his community gave me another glimpse of the kingdom of God, something imaginable, but not altogether knowable, at least not yet.
And then there’s the Saint himself.
On October 26th, Thessaloniki celebrates Demetrios’ saint day. In preparation the ciborium, a box which contains the remains of the saint, is presented in the church for viewing and veneration along with a special icon of Demetrios.
And so we pilgrims found ourselves in a long line of people coming forward to pray before and kiss an ancient container of...something imaginable, but not altogether knowable: the relics of a long dead saint.
Certainly not my piety and not the piety of our group as a whole, but there we were. Behind and ahead of us hundreds of others approached the ciborium with hope, longing, and awe.