One of my parishioners was a little shocked by a story in the one of the papers about the cassock of Pope John Paul being shredded and “relics” being given to the faithful, apparently one Vatican bishop wanted to discourage the practice; he claimed it was something from the Middle Ages. It goes much further back than that.
The use of relics has some, although limited, basis in sacred Scripture. In 2 Kings 2:9-14, the prophet Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah after Elijah had been taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. With this Elisha struck the water of the Jordan, which then parted so that he could cross. In another passage (13:20-21), some people hurriedly bury a dead man in the grave of Elisha, "but when the man came in contact with the bones of Elisha, he came back to life and rose to his feet." In the Acts of the Apostles we read, "Meanwhile, God worked extraordinary miracles at the hands of Paul. When handkerchiefs or cloths which had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases were cured and evil spirits departed from them" (19:11-12). In these three passages, a reverence was given to the actual body or clothing of these very holy people who were indeed God's chosen instruments—Elijah, Elisha and St. Paul. Indeed, miracles were connected with these "relics"—not that some magical power existed in them, but just as God's work was done through the lives of these holy men, so did His work continue after their deaths. Likewise, just as people were drawn closer to God through the lives of these holy men, so did they (even if through their remains) inspire others to draw closer even after their deaths. This perspective provides the Church's understanding of relics.
I have often wondered whether the detail in the Gospels regarding the two clothes in the tomb is reference to two relics prized by the early Church; remember Peter’s house at Capernaum seems to have been a shrine from the first century onwards.
At the martyrdom of St Polycarp, “who was a disciple of John, who was a disciple of Jesus, the Christ” people brought cloths to soak up his blood and seem to have taken them home, his body in a tomb that became a place of prayer and pilgrimage. From very beginning of Christianity the bodies of the Apostles, especially Peter and Paul at Rome, seem to have been treated with great veneration. Even in cultures that cremated their dead Christian opted for burial, the belief in Resurrection of the body, seemed to ensure that the dead, especially the faithful dead were a direct link with Christ, the eastward alignment of bodies invariable identifies them as being Christian. The bodies of the Martyrs most especially were venerated; it seems that they were seen as “making up in [their] own bodies whatever was lacking in the sufferings of Christ”. I am sure that their early connection with the Holy Eucharist and the consecration of altars is part of an early affirmation of, if not the Real Presence, the Real re-Presentation of the Suffering of Calvary.