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What about holy sites and relics?

ED: Faith is about ‘things not seen’ (Hebrews 11:1). But we like things we can see and touch. Also there’s money to be made out of religious merchandise. And so popular Christianity has always abounded with holy sites and relics.

There are shrines commemorating Bible events and people all over Israel and beyond. They mostly date from the late Roman period and the Middle Ages, and many of them are now believed to be in the wrong locations. In the Middle Ages there was a brisk trade in holy relics of every description—for example at one time there were so many ‘pieces of the holy cross’ in circulation that you could have built a house with them. The fact is, supposed ‘holy sites’ and ‘holy relics’ are really not to be taken seriously.

Even authentic relics can be dangerous. Moses made a bronze serpent at God’s command to stop a plague among the Israelites (Numbers 21:4-9). It was arguably a priceless artefact, but 800 years later it was destroyed by the godly king Hezekiah because it had become an object of veneration (2 Kings 18:4).

Is God interested in places? Yes. He has a special affection for the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 11:12), the city of Jerusalem (Matthew 5:35) and particularly the Temple Mount (Ezekiel 43:7). They have played key roles in the history of the world, and they will play a key role in its future (Isaiah 2:2–4). But there is no hint in the Bible that God is interested in any of the modern churches’ ‘holy sites’.

Jesus evidently valued certain places. He frequented the Garden of Gethsemane outside Jerusalem (John 18:1-2). Similarly there may be places we view as special, perhaps a quiet corner where we can particularly feel at peace with God, or the meeting room of a church. The place does not have any special power—God is everywhere (Psalm 139:8), and He can be worshipped anywhere (Matthew 18:20)—but places can have a special meaning to an individual.

Visual aids to spiritual life are good. In the Law of Moses the Israelites were told to put blue fringes on their garments to remind them that they should be holy like God (Numbers 15:38). In Deuteronomy 6:8–9 God told His people to write out His commandments and put them on their houses and their clothes (this is the origin of the Jewish phylactery). There are also modern innovations. For example some people have a plaque on their wall that says ‘Christ is the head of this house’. Some wear bracelets engraved with ‘WWJD’, which means ‘What Would Jesus Do’— a reminder to keep the right focus in all life’s situations and decisions.

Special places and objects can be valuable as aids to spiritual life, as long as it’s remembered that they exist to serve a purpose and have no power of their own.

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