In the person in the Orthodox Tradition, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos writes:
In the Church man can go from the image to the likeness, he can really be fulfilled, achieve his deification by grace, that is to say, become by participation what God is in essence.
Men and women who have been united with Christ “…are living His life and transcending death and all that is human.” By God’s grace, they have, as he suggests in his writing “given us another dimension to life.”
This other dimension isn’t held captive or limited by physical death. The fourth century saint, Gregory the Theologian, taught:
In life the saints were filled with the Holy Spirit, and when they have accomplished their course the grace of the Holy Spirit remains inseparably present in their souls and their bodies in the tomb, in their likeness and their holy icons, not according to essence but by grace and energy.
Saint Gregory of Palamas likewise believed that the bodies of the saints continued to manifest the marks of the indwelling energies of God. “For God’s grace is not sundered from these things, even as the divinity was not sundered from Christ’s venerable body at the time of his life-quickening death.”
These “things”, that is, the mortal remains of holy persons, or objects sanctified by contact with them are commonly referred in the Christian Tradition as relics. Relics, according to St. Nicholas Kavasilas,
…are not a sign, but a proof of the existence of God. When someone exposes his body to the sun, he has signs of the fact, for his body is sunburned. The same thing is true of the holy relics. They are a proof and manifestation of the existence of God.
In another place, he goes so far as to write, “If it is possible to find the Savior in any visible thing and to contain him there, it would be in these bones.”
When asked how the Serbian people understand and explain the bodies of saints and in some cases their clothing having fragrance and a power to work miracles Hiermonk Athanasios Jevtic, answered:
The people are not interested in going into the matter and explaining it. They know that once God has touched these people, He has sanctified them. They are people of God, and consequently filled with grace. Now we theologians try in some way to explain it more intellectually, but it is quite clear. Since the Incarnation of Christ we do not have polarization of soul and body; the human being is one…
His concluding words are reminiscent of Saint Nicholas Kabasilas:
The holy relics show that man was not created bad in the beginning, that his body is not evil, that salvation is not found in the departure of the soul from the body, as was taught by ancient philosophy, that man’s potential extends to deification by grace, that he can throw off corruption and mortality, in other words, the garments of skin, that the grace of God is conveyed from the soul to the body, that man consists of soul and body, and many other great truths.
Throwing off corruption and being united with God’s grace, is likened by St. Symeon, to the experience of placing iron in a fire.
When the iron is made fiery by the fire, it loses its dark coloring and partakes of the brilliance of the fire, while when it is separated from the fire, “it turns cold and dark again”. It is the same with the saints. When their souls are united with divine grace, their bodies too are sanctified “and burn incandescent, and become themselves translucent, and are restored as more excellent, more precious by far, than other bodies”. But when the souls are separated from the bodies, then some of them are given over to corruption and ‘begin shortly to dissolve”. “But still such bodies may remain for many years, neither wholly incorrupt, nor again quite corrupted, but keeping yet the indications each of corruption and incorruption, being preserved for the final resurrection, when they shall be made perfectly new and incorruptible.”
With reference to the final resurrection, Metropolitan Hierotheos suggests that “the holy relics of the saints are a herald of the coming resurrection, they are an experience now of the future beatitude, that is to say they are a resurrection before the final resurrection of men, a prologue to men’s life in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
It is for this reason that St. Gregory the Theologian summized, “What is the Church and what is its purpose? We can say: The Church is a workshop for the restoration of man, and its purpose is to make holy relics.”
Although we will continue this lesson on Holy Relics next week, I conclude for now with a thought from the Greek Theologian Panayiotis Nellas found in his writing Deification in Christ. He links relics to our very understanding of the Church.
The bishop has need of the altar and the saints, the altar of the bishop and the relics, the saints of the bishop and the altar. Each of the three finds its fullness in the other two and is defined by them. All three constitute preconditions for, and attain their culmination in, the divine Eucharist, in which the truth and unity of the Church is realized and revealed in its fullness. If one of the three is lacking, the Eucharist cannot be celebrated.