As the Great Prophet Ezekiel looked over the Kidron Valley, he prophesied the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of all those buried there. As we hear in the Lamentation Service on Great and Holy Friday, he speaks of the “dry bones” regaining flesh and returning to life. It is for this reason that the Kidron Valley remains the burial place of choice for Jews, Christians, and Moslems. For Christians, we look with anticipation to the day that the Lord will come again, appearing on the Mount of Olives, just as the angel promised when Jesus ascended in glory to His Father.
In accordance with the Covenant of old, a corpse was considered unclean; it polluted its surroundings. “He that touches the dead body of any man shall be unclean seven days. He shall purify himself with the water on the third day, and on the seventh day he shall be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day, then the seventh day he shall not be clean. Whosoever touches the dead body of any man and does not purify himself defiles the tabernacle of the Lord.” There did seem to be exceptions to this rule however as the dead body of Joseph did not defile Moses when he took it with him to Egypt, and the body of Elisha, the prophet didn’t defile him who was placed in the tomb, but, rather, healed him. And, it’s not uncommon to read in the Old Testament that the bones of the patriarchs and kin were gathered up by the Jews, throughout antiquity, to be placed in secondary ossuaries, be it from the Valley of Jehosophat or from other places.
Logically, as Christians came forth from the Temple, they would be influenced by Jewish beliefs as they established their burial rituals. Christian notions concerning the purity and impurity of corpses and graves evolved as they embraced the teachings and the resurrection of Christ who trampled down death. By the fourth century, “a theology of relics and the resurrection arose, which held that relics neither made a place impure nor had a neutral impact, but in fact purified the place where they resided.” Relics of the martyrs were not grim reminders of death, but rather a triumphal expression of death’s suppression. As one author has noted, “Whereas the fetid smell of death hung around ordinary bones, those of the martyr exhaled the sweet smell of sanctity.”
The Epistle of the Church of Smyrna, composed in 166AD, which describes the martyrdom of its bishop, Saint Polycarp, tells us the following: “We surrounded his relics 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 this martyrdom and honoring his victories and other sublime spiritual struggles.” What a beautiful reminder from the early Church. We the faithful have the privilege of gathering as did they to honor the relics of Saint Anna, Saint Joachim, St. Herman of Alaska, and St. John Maximovich as well as other saints whose relics come into our midst from time to time on their respective feasts; for the saints each remain icons of Christ, who continue to have His blessings to work wonders in this His Creation.
Knowing this history, which is the common history of every Christian, I remain amazed at the lack of veneration and honor that is paid to the saints as well as their Holy Relics by non-Orthodox and Orthodox alike. Are holy relics not found in every Apostolic Church around the world? Is our liturgical calendar not replete with references to the translocation of these sacred objects? Are prayers and hymns invoking the saints and honoring their sanctified remains not found in liturgical texts, even in simple prayer books that most of us have at home? Are their sanctified remains not found in every consecrated Altar Table and in the antimension, a liturgical implement made of cloth on which the Divine Liturgy is performed?
With respect to this reality, I can only wonder if it is Biblical ignorance, spiritual laziness, arrogance, or indifference that does not bring a knee or even a head to bow in the presence of Holy Relics? Should the Church not be filled with the Orthodox faithful when the Holy Relics of our matron and patron saint, the parents of the Theotokos, the Ancestors of Christ, are brought forth for veneration? With such a stiff-necked approach to the Saints prevalent amongst so many of the faithful, stiff-neck being a term that was regularly applied to the Jews of old when they continually strayed from God or denied to acknowledge His presence in their midst, what are we to do? Although employing a fourth century Canon from the Council of Gangra, which directs the Church to excommunicate those who simply despise or remain indifferent to relics may be appealing, it is far better for us to fall down with humility before these saints to glorify God, seek their forgiveness, and to seek their intercessions to soften the hearts of all those who remain outside the cult of the saints.
I close with the poetic words of St. John Chrysostom who described the way in which the holy relics were once translated and greeted by the faithful. May his nostalgic recollection inspire us to properly treasure those holy heirlooms in our midst, to the glory of God and unto our salvation:
“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 with radiant glory from the arena, the spectators receive him, and do not suffer him to tread the earth, bringing him home on the shoulders and according him countless praises…As this the holy martyr bestows grace to these very same cities, establishing them in piety, and from that time to this day he enriches this city.”
Holy Ancestors of Christ, intercede in our behalf. Amen!