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Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky
Orthodox dogmatic theology

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The veneration of holy relics.

In giving veneration to the saints of God who have departed with their souls into heaven, the

holy Church at the same time honors the relics or bodies of the saints of God which remain on

earth.

In the Old Testament there was no veneration of the bodies of the righteous, for the righteous

themselves were still awaiting their deliverance. Then also the flesh (of the dead) in itself

was considered unclean.

In the New Testament, after the Incarnation of the Saviour, there was an elevation not only

of the concept of man in Christ, but also of the concept of the body as the dwelling place of the

Holy Spirit. The Lord Himself, the Word of God, was incarnate and took upon Himself a humanbody. Christians are called to this: that not only their souls but also their bodies, sanctified by

holy Baptism, sanctified by the reception of the Most Pure Body and Blood of Christ, might become

true temples of the Holy Spirit. Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy

Spirit which is in you?” (1 Cor. 6:19). And therefore the bodies of Christians who have lived a

righteous life or have become holy through receiving a martyr's death, are worthy of special veneration

and honor.

The holy Church in all times, following Sacred Tradition, has shown honor to holy relics.

This honor has been expressed: a) in the reverent collection and preservation of the remains of

the saints of God, as is known from accounts even of the second century, and then from the testimonies

of later times; b) in the solemn uncovering and translation of holy relics; c) in the building

over them of churches and altars; d) in the establishment of feasts in memory of their uncovering

or translation; e) in pilgrimages to holy tombs, and in adorning them; f) in the constant rule

of the Church to place relics of holy martyrs at the dedication of altars, or to place holy relics in

the holy antimension upon which is performed the Divine Liturgy.

This very natural honor given to the holy relics and other remains of the saints of God has a

firm foundation in the fact that God Himself has deigned to honor and glorify them by innumerable

signs and miracles — something for which there is testimony throughout the whole course

of the Church's history.

Even in the Old Testament, when saints were not venerated with a special glorification after

death, there were signs from the bodies of the righteous. Thus, the body of a certain dead man,

after being touched to the bones of the Prophet Elisha in his tomb, immediately came to life, and

the dead man arose (IV[II] Kings 13:21). The body of the holy Prophet Elijah was raised up alive

into heaven, and the mantle of Elijah, which was left by him to Elisha, parted by its touch the waters

of the Jordan for the crossing of the river by Elisha.

Going over to the New Testament, we read in the book of the Acts of the Apostles that

handkerchiefs and belts (“aprons”) from the body of the Apostle Paul were placed upon the sick,

and the diseases of the sick were cured, and evil spirits departed from them (Acts 19:12). The

Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church have testified before their hearers and readers of the

miracles occurring from the remains of the saints, and often they have called their contemporaries

to be witnesses of the truth of their words. For example, St. Ambrose says in his homily at the

uncovering of the relics of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius: “You have known and even seen yourselves

many who have been delivered from demons, and even more of those who had no sooner

touched the garments of the saints with their hands than immediately they were healed of their

infirmities. The miracles of antiquity have been renewed from the time when, through the coming

of the Lord Jesus, there has been poured out upon the earth a most abundant grace! You see many

who have been healed as if by the shadow of the saints. How many cloths have been handed from

hand to hand! How many garments, laid upon the sacred remains and from the mere touching

become a source of healing, do believers entreat from each other! All strive at least a little to

touch (them), and the one who touches becomes well.” Similar testimonies may be read in St.

Gregory the Theologian, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. John Chrysostom, Blessed Augustine, and

others.

Already from the beginning of the second century there is information on the honor given by

Christians to the remains of saints. Thus, after describing the martyr's death of St. Ignatius the

God-Bearer, Bishop of Antioch, a person who witnessed this death states that “of what remained

from his body (he was torn to pieces by beasts in the circus), only the firmest parts were takenaway to Antioch and placed in a linen as an invaluable treasure of the grace which dwelt in the

martyr, a treasure left to the holy Church.” The residents of the cities, beginning with Rome, received

these remains in succession at that time, and carried them on their shoulders, as St. John

Chrysostom later testified, “to the present city (Antioch), praising the crowned victor and glorifying

the struggler.” Likewise, after the martyr's death of St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and the

burning of his body by the Proconsul, the Christiansgathered the bones of St. Polycarp as a

treasure more precious than precious stones and purer than gold, and placed them . . . for the

celebration of the day of his martyric birth, and for the instruction and confirmation of future

Christians.”

The remains of the saints (in Greek, ta leipsana; in Latin, reliquiae, both meaning what is

left”) are revered whether or not they are incorrupt, out of respect for the holy life or the martyric

death of the saint, and all the more when there are evident and confirmed signs of healing by

prayer to the saints for their intercession before God. The Church Councils many times (for example,

the Moscow Council of 1667) have forbidden the recognition of the reposed as saints

solely by the sign of the incorruption of their bodies. But of course the incorruption of the bodies

of the righteous is accepted as one of the Divine signs of their sanctity (One might say that the incorruption

of a dead body is no guarantee of sanctity: examples can be given of Oriental swamis whose bodies were

incorrupt long after death (whether by some natural means related to their ascetic life, or by a demonic counterfeit);

and of some great Orthodox saints (for example, St. Seraphim of Sarov, St. Herman of Alaska) there remain only

bones. The relics of St. Nectarios of Pentapolis (died 1920) were incorrupt for several years, and then quickly decayed

(in the ground), leaving only fragrant bones.).

Here let us note that the Slavonic word moshchi; “relics,” refers not only to the bodies of

saints: in Church Slavonic this word signifies in general the bodies of the reposed Thus, in the

Rite of Burial in the Book of Needs we read “And taking the relics of the reposed, we go out of

the Church,” etc. The ancient Slavonic moshchi (from the root mog) is apparently kin to the word

mogila, “grave.” Revering holy relics, we believe not in the power or the might of the remains of

the saints in themselves, but rather in the prayerful intercession of the saints whose holy relics

before us arouse in our hearts a feeling of the nearness to us of the saints of God themselves, who

once wore these bodies.




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