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Can You Dig Those Martyrs?

The fourth century was a time of intense antiquarian interest. The Church had emerged from underground. Great historians traveled the known world to research Christian origins and the stories of the martyrs. St. Helena supervised archeological excavations in the holy land. Pilgrims made their journeys to the celebrated sites of New Testament and Old, as well as the graves of the martyrs. There they collected oil from the lamps at the tombs. The wealthy sought relics. The poor bought trinkets.

Some bishops, too, took a passionate interest in their Christian forebears. St. Ambrose was model in this regard. He researched the stories of the martyrs of Milan and tried to retrace their steps and track down their burial sites. Not too long ago, we discussed his most famous excavation. Today, July 28, is the feast of another pair of martyrs who were exhumed by Ambrose: Saints Nazarius and Celsus.

As a matter of fact, all we really know for sure about these two martyrs is that their bodies were discovered by St. Ambrose. Paulinus tells us that the good bishop, at some time during the last three years of his life, after the death of the Emperor Theodosius (d. 395), discovered in a garden outside the walls of Milan the body of St. Nazarius, with severed head and still stained with blood, and that he ordered its removal to the Basilica of the Apostles. He found the body of St. Celsus in the same garden and had it taken to the same basilica. A richly decorated silver reliquary, dating from the fourth century, was found in the church of San Nazaro in Milan.