This, my blogging friends, is the entrance to the Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges. It is called that because there is contained within it ,a relic of Jesus' blood (allegedly...) where I visited this last weekend. It was one of the things I really wanted to do in our short time in Bruges, for reasons simply stemming from idle curiosity (or perhaps not so idle since we walked absolutely miles this weekend..)
Anyway... we arrived at the chapel just as the Friday morning 'veneration of the blood' service had started, so we asked if we could join the service. Most of you will know I am an evangelical at heart, (although I like to think I am open minded too) so I wasn't sure quite what I would think of the service. We discovered that 95% of the service was in dutch (or Flemish to be precise to the region), but for me, I think that actually added something to it. I hadn't a clue what the Priest was saying (literally none, and I do have some language background) so I just closed my eyes and soaked it in. There was a choir too, who at first glance seemed to comprise a bunch of people just dragged off the street, but when they sang, their harmonies were glorious and the sound just echoed around the building, and I actually found myself wiping a tear from my eye at one point. I can't really describe what I felt, but the sense of worship and reverence was really strong. It was kind of like being in a warm, cosy, safe place, and just feeling really safe and enclosed, but also something more, like being lifted up. Like coming into Gods presence, I guess. I don't know if that doesn't all sound a bit odd, but it is hard to describe.
It all rather surprised me, and the Roman Catholic Church went up in my estimation I have to say... for about 20 minutes anyway. The fact that the Priest did the peace and the blessing in 4 languages was also impressive!
However... just as I was basking in the afterglow of this rather lovely service (and the beautiful surroundings of the church itself), the Priest and some chaps in suits who I assume must have been the town elders or something similar, processed down the aisle, the Priest holding aloft a small glass vial, encased in gold - the relic of the Holy Blood. From here they went into a side chapel, and up on to a small altar, where the vial was placed on a special cushion. At this point a rather fearsome looking woman (in the required RC gear of course) stepped forward, I can only assume she was the bouncer in charge of the blood... Then all the chaps stepped forward one at a time, knelt in front of the vial, kissed it in some cases and then moved on. The remaining congregation were then invited to do the same. As you can imagine I did not. The warm fuzzy feeling left rather quickly...
Now I did study some religious art as part of my degree and so I am no stranger to the idea of Holy relics. I understand their use and frequent appearance throughout the Roman Catholic Church, and the veneration that they receive. However to see it in practice in this way was utterley bizarre to say the least. I may incur some wrath here, (but I would seriously love to hear from people who take part in this kind of thing) but what a ridiculous thing to do. Jesus is our God, our Saviour, and it is Him that we worship, Him that we pray to, not a phial of his blood, or for the same reason, nor do we pray to a splinter of wood from his cross (incidentally there are a rather large number of these around the world so I can only assume his cross was absolutely gigantic) a bone from St. Johns little toe or a piece of cloth from St Peters robe. Why do people venerate these 'things', these items? It rather brought to mind the idea that some evangelists use of praying over handkerchiefs and sending them to sick people, but the point here being that it is not the handkerchief or the evangelist that heals people but the power of the Holy Spirit within it (if you believe that is possible..). Is it really right to kneel in front of an item in this way and venerate it as if it were God? (ok, so I do accept that in this case if it really were Jesus' blood, you could say, well yes it is a part of Him - or was.. but that rather misses the point).
In effect using relics and venerating them in this way seems to give them as much importance as Christ Himself, and surely that cannot be right. Can it?