Pilgrimage has always been an important part of religious thinking, and indeed of human experience. To go on pilgrimage to a holy place is an acted symbol of our journey through life, a journey with and towards God.
The Bible itself is the story of a journey involving the whole of creation from the Garden of Eden to the heavenly Jerusalem, and we are invited to see ourselves in this bigger story. This is something to which St Albans has born witness from its very beginnings, and something that we are making a high priority through our welcome to visitors of all faiths and of none.
Relics: Then and Now
In the Medieval ages relics were highly valued, and at the heart of the Abbey Church were the relics – the physical remains – of Alban. The Venerable Bede writes of a visit by St Germanus of Auxerre to the shrine of Britain’s first martyr. It is said he brought with him relics of the twelve apostles and placed them in Alban’s grave. In exchange he took some of the earth where the martyr’s blood had been shed. This is but one example of pilgrims who flocked to be near to the physical remains of Alban.
It is easy to caricature this attachment to relics, but at heart, relics represent a tangible, physical connection to the saint who is with God. They speak both of the nearness of heaven, and of the physical nature of the Christian hope – that God redeems and communicates through the material things of this world. The veneration of relics is also rooted in the natural human instinct to treat with reverence something which we connect with our departed loved ones. To venerate the relic of the saint is to honour God who has made the person holy.
Although lost in the destruction of the Reformation years, in 2002 the Abbey benefited from a very special gift from an ecumenical link with the Church of St Pantaleon in Cologne – a priceless relic of St Alban from their ancient reliquary. The relic, a shoulder-bone, was installed in the shrine by the Auxiliary Bishop of Cologne in a special service. One bystander famously remarked that Alban had come home, and many here feel that he has. Today the relic of St Alban rests in its proper place, the Shrine Chapel at the heart of the great Cathedral that bears his name, drawing pilgrims from all over the world.
Click below to download the sermon preached by The Very Revd Jeffrey John, Dean on "Alban the Relic".