“The Holy Spirit speaks to us concerning the miracle-workings of the saints during the period of their life on earth, that they bore witness to the power dwelling within them.” The Elder Cleopa of Romania continues:
Many people were healed only by touching the Apostle Paul’s body and handkerchief, while others were healed only by being under the shadow of the Apostle Peter. For inasmuch as God has glorified them, giving them miraculous power, so too should we venerate them, for in this way we honor God, Who bestowed His grace on them. Indeed, we are obliged to honor, not the bones themselves, but their divine power. We don’t erect Churches to the holy relics, but in those holy places where holy relics are discovered, we raise churches of God to the glory of God.”
The Elder offers these thoughts when explaining the true blessing and significance of Holy Relics, sacred items that have been removed from much of the piety of the Western Church, and dare I say the Orthodox Church in the New World.
As we discussed in the previous lesson, “Holy Relics are not a sign, but a proof of the existence of God.” How do they prove the existence of God? Saint Nicholas Kavasilas reminds us: “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.” The bones of the saints still possess the Grace of the Holy Spirit from when the body was animated with life, and therefore the relics are in some cases uncorrupt, in other instances fragrant or myrrh bearing. For Bishop Hierotheos the reason we approach Holy Relics and are also convinced of the existence of God is because, “…the grace of God is working and performing miracles through them.”
In the Epistle of the Church of Smyrna, we gain a glimpse of the great respect shown to Holy Relics as well as the means by which they were incorporated into the life of the second century church:
“We surrounded his relics [those of Polycarp the Bishop] as if they were an heirloom, more costly than gold and more valued than diamond stones and we placed them in the appropriate place. Here we would be gathered with joy and the Lord would give us the blessing of celebrating the anniversary of the day of his martyrdom and honoring his victories and other sublime spiritual struggles.”
The Relics of the Martyred Bishop Polycarp were considered more precious than gems and the site of the reliquary was a place of annual prayer, commemoration and the celebration of the Eucharist. It’s no wonder that as the centuries passed, the cult of the saints and the veneration of the Relics would be so common, yet profound in the lives of the faithful, the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 would direct that the Relics of martyrs be placed in the antimision, or the cloth on which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated up, which remains on the Holy Altar Table.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium “…From the fourth century onward, holy bodies were exhumed, dismembered and distributed by solemn ‘translation’ to various local churches.” Why would a local church want but a small relic? Saint Theodoritos of Kyros explains, “The undivided grace of even a divided body remains, and even that very small relic has the same power as a piece of evidence which has not been divided in any way.” Even though the relics of a particular saint may be found throughout the world, we are reminded by Bishop Nikolai of blessed memory, “On the Day of the (General) Resurrection, [God] will bring together all their bodily components and raise them in glory.”
The blessing of holy relics is that they remain “objects in which God Himself manifests all the miraculous power of His Grace.” These words of the Elder Cleopas are in the tradition of countless other saints who like Saint John Chrysostom, could “See the power of God seated beside them, the grace of the Spirit surrounding them, the glory of the heavenly light wrapping them round.” Saint Ephraim the Syrian relates the following concerning the relics of holy Martyrs: “Even after death they act as if alive, healing the sick, expelling demons and by the power of the Lord rejecting every evil influence of the demons. This is because the miraculous grace of the Holy Spirit is always present in the holy relics.” For Saint John of Damascus he suggested that Christ gave the relics of the saints as saving fountains “which in divers manners pour out benefactions and gush with fragrant ointment.” Similarly, Saint Gregory Palamas noted “The holy fragrance given off from them, the perfumes which gush forth, the gifts of grace of the cures, the miraculous actions of the powers, the manifold and saving manifestations to us through them.”
In any instance, the greatest benefit of Holy Relics is that they assist the faithful in their process of sanctification. Saint Gregory the Theologian provides the following insight:
When a man is sanctified, he becomes a social factor as well; he functions rightly in society, in his family and in all his interpersonal relations. In this light we can see the great social work of the holy relics. Apart from their various good works, protecting the cities and lands, at the same time they are helping man towards sanctification.
I conclude with a beautiful and poignant eulogy detailing the way Saint Ignatius was translated and greeted by the faithful:
You, inhabitants of Antioch, have sent forth a bishop and received a martyr; you sent him forth with prayers, and received him back with crowns; and not only you, but all the cities, which lay between. For how do you think that they behaved when they saw his remains being brought back? What pleasure was produced! How they rejoiced! With what laudations on all sides did beset the crowned one! For as with a noble athlete, who has wrestled down all his antagonists, and who comes forth radiant glory from the arena, the spectators receive him, and do not suffer him to tread the earth, bringing him home on their shoulders and according him countless praises…. At this time the holy Martyr bestows grace to the very same cities, establishing them in piety, and from that time to this day he enriches this city.