The winged lion is everywhere in Venice. It is the symbol of the city of Venice and, in the past, of the Republic of Venice. Only after consulting my travel guide, the penny dropped. The symbol refers to Mark, the author of the first gospel to be written, who gave his name to the enormous San Marcos basilica. [From the first centuries of the Christian era four symbols have been applied to the evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: a winged human being or an angel (Matthew), a winged lion (Mark), a winged ox (Luke) and an eagle (John).
The remains of the gospel writer Mark are kept in Venice—where I spent a few days as a tourist earlier this week—, except his head, for that seems to be in Alexandria. Sneaky sailors or tradesmen from Venice (9th century) operated as clever ‘body snatchers’ and brought the body of Mark—a highly desired relic—to their city, or, more precisely, the cathedral of the city. When a later restoration of the church took place in 1054, the body could not be located, but a timely miracle solved this problem. From behind a pillar St. Mark stretched out his arm to point the doge (the Venetian ruler) to the place where the body could be found!
En route from Florence to Venice I took the opportunity for a short visit to Padua. The cathedral of Padua is home to the relics of St. Luke. A Serbian prince bought Luke’s remains for 30.000 golden coins from an Ottoman sultan. A subsequent transaction brought the relics to Padua. Not long ago one of the ribs of Luke was, however, given to the church in Thebes, which felt it also has a claim to this famous relic.
A few years ago I visited the place that, according to a strong tradition, is the grave of the apostle John, in the ruins of a basilica that bears his name in Ephesus. We can be reasonably sure that, after John had been freed from his imprisonment on Patmos, John lived for some time in nearby Ephesus. And it is, therefore, quite likely, that he was buried there.
So far I have visited the last resting place of three of the four gospel writers. I wonder whether I could perhaps also visit the place where the body of St. Matthew is kept. After a little googling I discovered that the remains of Matthew were somehow found in 1080 in Salerno in Southern Italy. Ever since large numbers of pilgrims visit the place of these important relics. [Perhaps I will have the chance to go there next year. I have been invited to teach a seminar for the Italian Adventist pastors, and the place for this event will be somewhere in Sicily. If I should go by car, I could easily drive by Salerno.]
From a touristic, and even from a historical perspective, these things are quite interesting. But as a Protestant Christian I find this bizarre relic business totally disgusting. As an Adventist Christian it gives me some additional food for thought. The fact that three houses of Mrs. Ellen G., White may be visited, in Battle Creek (MI), Avondale (Australia), and St. Helena (CA), respectively, may be defensible, as these visits provide considerable historical information to the visitor. But the privilege of holding (in the vault in Silver Spring, MD, where the manuscripts of Ellen White are kept) the enormous 8 kilo Bible, which Ellen White held high for half an hour during a vision, borders perhaps too closely on veneration of relics. And for many Adventists a trip to the cemetery in Battle Creek, for a tour along the graves of the Adventist ‘pioneers’, tends to become a sort of sacred pilgrimage.
The church reformers abandoned all veneration of relics and of the saints involved. Last week further convinced me that we should continue in this same track and turn our back on anything that even faintly resembles it.