In 814 AD, a Spanish hermit named Pelagius noticed a strange light shining from a nearby field. As Pelagius tried to investigate the light, he discovered a tomb, hundreds of years old, perhaps from Roman times. When the local bishop was called out to inspect this new discovery he confirmed that this was no ordinary tomb; this was the gravesite of James, son of Zebede, one of the Apostles of Jesus Christ.
Instantly this tomb became a place of importance and people from far and wide began traveling to the site to see the relics of Saint James and to pray before them. In 1075 a great cathedral was built to house the relics and to accommodate the many pilgrims coming to see them. This cathedral, which still stands today, would become the third holiest site in all of Christendom and one of the world’s greatest pilgrimage destinations.
We don’t really know how the bones of one of the followers of Jesus Christ wound up forgotten in a field in Galicia, a distant Northwestern province of Spain; Much of the tale is legendary and it is doubtful that one could ever prove that these are in fact the bones of Saint James. So be it. Sometimes we need to put our modern cynicism aside for a bit to allow ourselves to be moved by the true power of a story; and the power of this story is this: for over a thousand years people from all walks of life have left everything behind, gotten up from their daily routine and walked. They walked for possibly hundreds of miles, just to be close to the remains of someone who was close to Jesus.
In the Gospel of Luke, we may recall the story of a woman who longed to be near Jesus so much that she was satisfied with merely touching the hem of his cloak. She didn’t have to touch Jesus; she just had to reach out to him, and it was enough for her just to touch something that had been close to him. At the heart of it, that is what pilgrimage is really all about: reaching out across years and across miles to touch something that was close to Jesus. In the Gospel story, Jesus turns to the woman and says to her: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” There is power to be found in reaching out to God in faith: there is power to heal, power to forgive, power to renew and power to transform. God honored the act of faith made by this woman, just as he has honored acts of faith performed by individuals throughout the generations.
The world is often skeptical about things like relics and shrines, but I am convinced that they still have great power; if for nothing else, relics and shrines serve as a reminder that these saints that we hear about in tales and legends, these superheros of the Christian world, were actually real people: they had flesh and bones just like you and me and in a few special places throughout the world, those bones are present to us as a reminder of how faith can transform the lives of ordinary individuals; people just like you and me. We all can aspire to the same holiness that those saints displayed. We all can reach out to Christ in faith as the woman in the Gospel story did. As another famous Saint James wrote in his epistle: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” Perhaps the greatest question for any pilgrim is not whether or not the bones in the shrine before them could actually be those of a saint; it is whether the bones in the mirror before them could be.