Bodies, Bones and Belief – Christianity and Relics

And Elisha died, and they buried him. And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet. (2Kings 13:20-21 or 4 Kingdoms 13:20-21).

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Every year at the end of October, America engages with a holiday that is quite strange. It has vague connections with earlier British customs and a host of modern myths about the origins of holidays. It is the cultural festival of Halloween (from the older English, “All Hallows’ Eve” or today’s All Saints’ Day). The celebration has little or nothing to do with modern Christianity (indeed a number of conservative Christian groups condemn it). It has become a festival of candy (children go house to house and are given candy at each home). But it also is a holiday that celebrates much of the modern fascination with the macabre. Children dress up in costume. Many are to be found in the guise of innocent Disney characters and the like. However, there is a long-running practice in which children are also disguised as demons, witches, zombies, etc. Television in America concentrates on the genre of “horrow movies” for weeks ahead of the candy festival and for some time following (of course there are entire cable channels in America dedicated to horrow films).

All of this strikes me as odd. It cannot be said that “horror” has modern roots in religion. America, though fascinated with vampires, zombies and the like, has, on the other hand, very little acquaintance with death (not the idea of death, but actual dead people). The American funeral industry has consistently moved away from dead bodies, embalming, viewing – all of the older trappings of death. Instead, cremation has become far more common (if not dominant in some parts of our culture). No one need see those they love in the covering of death. The funeral industry has done much to shield people from the unpleasantness of death. Here in my home in Tennessee – a local mortuary has begun to run television commercials for cremation – encouraging its practice in an area where conservative Protestants are less comfortable with such customs. When I have spoken on this topic before groups of people, I have often asked the question, “How many of you have seen a baby be born?” and “How many of you have actually witnessed a person’s death?” I am still surprised when the answer comes out to be but a small minority. There are two things people have to do: be born and die. However, it appears that a majority of modern populations have seen neither (women obviously have an advantage over men in witnessing the birth of a child).

Strangely, the same modern population has turned macabre treatments of death into an entertainment industry. The advent of highly sophisticated “special-effects” in movies have only made this industry more extreme. Older films of the horror-variety are primarily suggestive in their depictions. Current films are pornographic by comparison.

This may seem a strange introduction to a post about the veneration of saints’ relics – but it seems to me to be quite germane. For the context of modern Christianity is a world in which the stuff of death has been clinically hidden from sight – while the imagination of death has been rendered into entertainment. To suggest that there is a place for bones and bodies within the religious context simply begs the horrific revulsion of our culture. To tell the non-Orthodox that Orthodox funerals include an action called “the Last Kiss,” in which the faithful offer a reverential kiss to the body of the departed, is to suggest, for many, the unimaginable. With that, we turn to the subject of relics.

+++

The cornerstone teaching of Apostolic Christianity, is that God became man and dwelt among us. He was fully man, flesh and bone, with a human soul. He suffered death and crucifixion. His death was real in every human sense of the word. He descended into Hades, and freed us from our bondage to sin and death. In His resurrection we are raised from the dead. He carried us with Him into the bosom of the Father.

But in that He accomplished all of this as man, as well as God, there is no “bodiless” Jesus. Christ, dead on the Cross, is no different than the two thieves dead on their crosses, or dead men and women everywhere. The women disciples who went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, did not go looking for a resurrection. They went looking for a dead body, to refresh the hurriedly wrapped and buried body of that Friday before sunset. It is in that mundane action, which would have been done for any loved one who had been so hurriedly buried, that they encountered the risen Lord. They were doing something which modern culture would pay someone else to do, but would generally be horrified were it to be asked of them.

With this image in mind, I can turn our attention to the place of relics in the Orthodox Church. From earliest times, the bodies of the saints have been recognized as a source of miracles and the power of God. You need only read the short passage from the book of Kings quoted above to know what even the Old Testament recognized as true. Contact with the bones of Elisha raised a man from the dead.

From the earliest days, disciples reverently gathered the remains of martyrs (among other objects), and preserved them carefully. They quickly (and as surely as the bones of Elisha) became objects of honor and devotion. This is perfectly natural and human, and illustrates proper piety and devotion in the light of Holy Scripture. Relics are never worshipped (such a practice is contrary to the canons of the Church). However, they are given the honor that is due them.

During extreme times of the Reformation or of the Puritan revolutions, bodies of the saints in many Western Churches, were removed from Churches and burned (not given a Christian burial, but burned like heretics). This was iconoclasm at its worst.

To this day, Orthodox Christians continue to give honor and reverence to the bodies and bones of true saints of God (sometimes including their garments or other effects). This is true not only for saints of ancient times, but for saints of modern times.

There are those who have inherited the skepticism of our culture and question relics. They assume that anything that can be questioned may (even should) be questioned. They repeat myths (like there being enough relics of the “true cross” to build a ship). This is actually a lie. There are not even enough relics of the true cross to reconstitute a single cross. But ignorance becomes more believable with repetition.

That there is a reason to venerate the relics of the holy saints is made clear in Scripture (see 2 Kings 13:21). That the Church continues to do so is simply a testament to the faithfulness of those who received the fullness of Christian Tradition. That the relics of contemporary saints continue to be places where miracles occur is simply a testimony of the faithfulness of God who “never leaves us nor forsakes us.”

That our culture is revulsed by such actions is a testimony to the deranged values that surround us. We pay money to watch make-believe films of those who eat the dead, while we would prefer not even to touch the body of our own loved ones. The Tradition of the Church in the matter of relics calls us both to be faithful to the example of our fathers in the faith, and to renounce the macabre distortions of our own culture. We despise what we should love and judge others who love what we despise. Merciful God, save us!

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35 Responses to “Bodies, Bones and Belief – Christianity and Relics”

  1. fatherstephen Says:

    Photos: Top photo is of the incorrupt body of St. Saba the Sanctified, who lived in the 6th century. The lower photo is of the skulls of the marytrs of Mar Saba monastery in the Judaean desert. Some are quite ancient, others more recent.

  2. Leonard Nugent Says:

    I found a photo of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, Died 1879 She is incorrupt and it has always been ironic to me that she looks better in death than she did in life. My mom who had a great devotion to her has her dates reversed, April 16 and January 7

  3. Henry Says:

    Thank you, I shall continue to consider your response respectfully.

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  5. Fr. Christian Mathis Says:

    Thanks for this post Fr. Stephen. My parish at St. Thomas was recently gifted with several relics, including to my surprise one of St. John the Evangelist. Even though we live in a culture that does not completely understand things like relics, or icons for that matter, I still find value in continuing to show others why we should venerate them.

    By the way, I was fortunate enough as a seminarian to visit St. Sabba’s Monastery and to see both his relics and the chapel of the martyrs. It is a very powerful place!

  6. Andrew Says:

    If I may:

    What does it mean to be truly human, or not as the case may be?

    Readers may wish to refer to an excellent discussion on the subject in Apophatic Anthropology, a podcast in the Paradosis series on Ancient Faith Radio. Frs. John Hainsworth and Kosta Kalsidis deal with some of the modern myths passingly referred to as the “zombie genre” or more accurately to quote Fr. Kalsidis: “the anthropological study of ficticious necrology in literature and mass media”.

    The Frs. conclude that to be human is to know that your true life is hid with Christ in God. This is another way of saying that you have seen the image of the most blessed and undivided Trinty.

    Another very good post indeed Father, thank you.

  7. auxsvr Says:

    As an outsider, I’ve always wondered what fascinates Americans in all these macabre, and often perverse, depictions of death in films that young people prefer to watch. My understanding nowadays is that a secular’s reaction to death would be to try to make it seem like a familiar and controlled experience, just like how he has been raised to live his life.

    The combination of death and early adulthood, with all its tragedies, is predominantly manifested as a common theme in such films. As a Christian, I cannot help but conclude that this combination stems from the death that sins at such age cause in a person’s soul, which also leads to the fear of death itself, and the need to moderate this fear.

    Since sin never prevents sin from spreading, these macabre images only give people distorted perceptions on death and life itself, further propagating sin and aggravating it. Since flesh is inert, the end result is that the soul is made more insensitive to the real death around us.

  8. Mrs. Mutton Says:

    Father, bless! I would be interested to know how you handle this topic when approached by evangelicals who point to an Old-Testament prohibition on contact with the dead, and insist that we violate it when we pray to saints and honor their relics. I know what *I* think, but I don’t have your training to respond to this accusation.

  9. NicholasMyra Says:

    Mrs. Mutton,

    Tell them that there are no longer any dead people.

    Not one dead remains in a tomb.

  10. Philip Jude Says:

    Such Old Testament verses probably refer to the use of ‘mediums’ and other forms of black magic. Plus, even as late as the Incarnation, the Jews had a very shadowy conception of the afterlife. A combination of prudence and aversion to pagan practice made them rightfully hesitant to engage in such practices.

    Those of us in the age of the Church, however, have been enlightened by the very Wisdom of God. We now know that the communion of saints is a living and unified reality — there is only one Body of Christ.

    Protestants, generally rejecting this ancient teaching, have regrettably descended into pre-Christian ignorance of the afterlife. Just as they have rendered the Church in this world invisible, so they rendered the Church in the next world mute.

    Ecclesiology, how one understands the Body of Christ, powerfully influences the rest of one’s theology. We do not “access” the saints by human conjuring, as some Protestants suggest; we are bound to them in ways unfathomable as co-members of the Body of Christ, the Church, which is “one and holy.”

  11. fatherstephen Says:

    Mrs. Mutton, the only prohibitions I know of are those that would render someone “ritually unclean” thus needing purification (generally a ritual bath) before offering sacrifice. Someone under the vow of a Nazarite also avoided contact with a dead body. As for the Christian Church, the veneration of relics is made a part of canon law in the 7th Ecumenical Council, and the denial of its rightness, etc., is condemned as heresy. But won’t carry any weight with the non-Orthodoxy (other than the Roman Catholics).

    I was far more interested in this article with the cultural context in which people now encounter this topic. I suspect that many cannot deal with it because they have a hard time dealing with the whole topic of death itself.

  12. Philip Jude Says:

    Father,

    I imagine they’re probably referring to ancient Israel’s prohibition on necromancers, mediums, diviners, witches and wizards, conjurers of “familiar spirits,” etc. Or, more specifically, Saul’s unfortunate encounter with the witch of Endor.

  13. Philip Jude Says:

    That these bans have any bearing on the communion of saints speaks to Protestant’s near-total abandonment of sacramental and mystic Christianity, which it confuses with magic and pagan superstition on the basis of superficial similarities.

  14. Sally Says:

    Proper burial was so important to OT and NT Christians. Pains were taken at times to ensure the burial site wasn’t found so it couldn’t be disturbed. How do you reconcile those views of burial with the display of sculls and other bones in cases?

  15. Philip Jude Says:

    Wouldn’t a saint prefer his bones to rest in a church altar, enjoying daily the sacred liturgy, rather than in the dank, dark earth, where only bugs celebrate God’s goodness?

  16. wpapa Says:

    Thank you, Father, for this beautiful post.

    A book worth reading, written by an Orthodox couple, on topic:

    http://www.achristianending.com

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    Sally,
    All of these relics certainly had a proper burial. However in some parts of the mideast there is a disinterring and a cleaning of the bones, that are then stacked and stored differently. This certainly pre-dates Christianity. There are many stories associated with these disinterrments, including many miracles, or the fact that the body is incorrupt, or exuding myrhh, etc. These are handled in a different way thereafter,

  18. Drewster2000 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    You said of yourself that you like to push the boundaries – or at least go up to them. This is one of the great things about your blog. For those of us blundering around in the dark, it’s good to find someone who’s willing to put thoughts out there. We may not have all the answers, but we can at least put forth the light we’re given. I realize there is risk involved, but I for one think you’re doing an excellent job of walking the line.

    ~~~~~~~

    This post was good, but something was lacking for me. I’ve encountered Orthdodox (and some Catholic) Christians who would indeed appear to worship the relics – at least in their hearts if not outwardly. This troubles me.

    I think this is an inherent danger of relics. I’m not saying therefore they shouldn’t be, just that it is a danger that comes with them. In a world where materialism is king, we grope about for a God with skin on and some would happily be satisfied with relics. Perhaps unknowingly, these people can try to subvert the will of God by going directly to something that they can see and possibly touch, and almost prayer-force the desired answer to their problems.

    Friends of mine had a dying loved one. When it was said that a holy man was bringing a relic to her bedside, you could hear in their voices that it was almost a visit from Christ Himself and it could easily be thought that they believed in magic.

    But let me add one more thing: I believe in relics.

    And I think part of the difficulty I speak of happens when the practice of relics comes to North America. We are such empiricists, such materialists here that anything smacking of mystery simply has no category. We might toss into our box for magic, mystery(if we have one), witchcraft, supernatural, holiness, or a whole host of others.

    AND we tend to do everything “all or nothing”. So we either jump in with 2 feet and our former associates think we’re worshiping relics. Or we stand behind the iconoclasts and quickly remind everyone how the Catholic church sold indulgences, holy water, pieces of the Cross, and everything else.

    If you can, a follow-up article guiding us in how exactly to approach relics (or anything holy) would be wonderful. Perhaps the notion of reverence itself would be the most appropriate subject. This is a forgotten art in our part of the world today. Thanks again.

    in Christ, drew

  19. Joel Watson+ Says:

    Again, thank you. Some of us Episcopalians (Anglicans) completely agree with you, or at least with the Church Catholic and her (our) 7 Councils. Don’t sell us all short Father. If Christ has raised the dead he has raised me, and those like me too! Your blog is always refreshing and right on!

  20. David Fox Says:

    There are a few questions that come to mind.

    1. When I think of relics . . . I picture them iin Europe or other “ancient” Orthodox or Roman Catholic settings . . . but not in the US. Are any relics on permanent display in the US?

    2. Are there any American saints whose bodies are honored as relics? Are there any saints from North or South America that are honored as saints?

    3. You mentioned that some of the bodies and bones of modern saints are honored. What does modern mean? Are there any 20th century saints that are thus honored? 19th century?

    4. Okay, don’t roll your eyes. I have not attended an Orthodox funeral. When “the Last Kiss” is observed, where are the lips pressed?

    Good post.

  21. David Fox Says:

    As you know I have been reading your blog for a few weeks and have perused through your historical files. I appreciate your work, and it is refreshing to “listen” to you..

    There is a phrase you have impressed on my mind. It pops up in my mind at different times of the day. It isn’t a new concept for me at all, but the simplistic wording is easy to remember and resonates with me: “Glory to God for all things.”

    This phrase (or statement) is a gift you have given me. “Glory to God for all things”. I want others to sense that this is who I am . . . one who gives glory to God for all things. It is peaceful. And meek. It reflects the heart of one who has turned to God . . . who relies on God . . . and who loves others. This is who I seek to be. In my life and in all things, may God be glorified. And yours too Father Stephen.

  22. Natalia Says:

    Hello Father Stephen,
    I am wondering, on a practical level, what we can and should do (perhaps especially as a young person) if we have been so affected by our modern culture as to be horrified (the way culture has wanted us to) of death and dead bodies. For example the photo with the skulls I found exceedingly disturbing and couldn’t wait until I could scroll away. I know that my question obviously goes into the deeper question of whether or not I have faith in the resurrection, but I also am struggling on the most base, revulsion level (and fear and so on).
    Thank you so much for your site and your wise words!

  23. Joel Watson+ Says:

    Hi David! I first of all think of Mother Cabrini in NYC in. Glass casket. Then on the American secular level, the unknown soldier, the locket of “The Divine Washington” ‘s hair, etc. So even the State has it’s relics for pilgrimage and worth-ship. Just thinking out loud…

  24. fatherstephen Says:

    David, good questions.

    Yes there are Orthodox saints in America and their relics are often displayed. St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent of Moscow, St. Tikhon of Moscow, St. Alexis of Wilkes Barre, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco. In some cases (St. John for instance) their incorrupt relics are on permanent display. Most Orthodox Churches have some small relics, though usually fragments of bone, mounted in an icon or placed in the altar at its consecration. All Churches have an antimension (cloth) with the bones of a martyr sewn in, without which the liturgy is not celebrated.

    In the Last Kiss, often an icon or cross is provided to kiss. Often the kiss is to the forehead. I kissed my mother and father on the forehead as I gave them to God.

    When a priest or Bishop dies, he is vested by brother priests while others read the gospel over him. I have shared in this one time. The funeral home guys stood by to help if need be – but is was our job. With each article of clothing we read the appropriate vesting prayer. These are the canons of the Church. Also its something the family would have done for anyone but a few generations back.

    There are indeed 20th, even 21st century saints, and we treat their relics the same of those of ancient timnes. St. John of San Francisco’s incorrupt relics can be seen in the ROCOR cathedral in San Francisco. St. Herman of Alaska in the Cathedral in Sitka, etc. The miracles associated with relics, icons, etc., are too numerous to mention. Generally the Orthodox don’t mention them – they’re sort taken as a matter of course (see articles on the One-Storey Universe).

  25. NicholasMyra Says:

    “Friends of mine had a dying loved one. When it was said that a holy man was bringing a relic to her bedside, you could hear in their voices that it was almost a visit from Christ Himself”

    Who’s to say it was not? Acting as chosen vessels for God is what the saints and their relics are for.

  26. Drewster2000 Says:

    @NicholasMyra

    I don’t disagree, but I (and lots of others) are still at a loss for how to think about the idea of reverence, let alone relics. I suspect it wouldn’t do for me to call it magic. So what then? In this postmodern age, many lines have been crossed and blurred in people’s minds. We need guidance on what is real and how to view these things.

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    Drewster,
    For one thing, if this is something that has grounds in the Old Testament, has an unbroken practice through to the present, then it’s probably not New Age. Reverence is not worship, but God alone is holy, so that the holiness in which saints and their relics participate is indeed the holiness of God. Nevertheless, the Church forbids anything more than reverence. St. Paul placed pieces of cloth on his body and sent them out and people were healed.

    It helps in thinking about these things to be with people for whom these things are a normative part of their Orthodox life. If you’ve read any or followed the visit of the “sash of the Mother of God” in Russia, you’re likely to see a very different cultural attitude about these things. The same is true about a visit to Mt. Athos.

    I think it is hard to grasp reverence, relics and the like, without on the other hand actually knowing the saint, which is something that comes with time and prayer. Some saints are very special to me, not because I like their story, etc., but because I know them and they have done me much good and helped in my life and in the lives of others. None of this distracts from God any more than being part of the Church distracts from God. God without the saints is like God without the angels – theoretically it can be so – but He is almost never depicted that way in Scripture. He the God of Hosts. Saints are part of the hosts. Some fear blasphemy, having had that drilled into them, but do not hear the blasphemy of the prosperity gospel or many other modern Christian inventions. More of us will be separated from God because we are judgmental pharisees (I think of myself) than because we loved the saints too much.

    If a person is in the right context, the saints, etc., comes naturally without having to force it. We can be patient. Better patience than to try and think ourselves into somewhere we’re not yet comfortable with.

  28. Drewster2000 Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    Well spoken. Thanks again for your patience and wisdom. I especially like the idea that it is better to be patient [and gracious] than to “think ourselves into somewhere we’re not yet comfortable with”. I suspect much hatred of the unknown and unfamiliar would be dissolved by such an approach.

    And yet…..I would still welcome your words and reflection on the concept of reverence. Our culture has forgotten….

  29. Stephanie C Says:

    Thank you so much for this. I was struggling after seeing the pictures of the revestment of St John of San Francisco recently. This post has clarified most of the issue for me, although it still is a little difficult to see.
    Can you answer as to why there would be a REvestment?
    Stephanie

  30. fatherstephen Says:

    Stephanie,
    In the case of the incorrupt bodies of saints, their vestments do tend to wear out, in which case the vestments are removed and new ones placed on them (Revestment).

  31. Karen Says:

    Father, bless! Thank you for this post.

    Re: revesting relics, I read somewhere that the shoes of one Saint wear out every year and need to be replaced. Can reverence be compatible with a sense of humor? It seems like God is expressing a sense of humor in such a case–demonstrating the Saint still “putting on mileage” in service for the Lord!

  32. Marie Says:

    Karen. . . yes, St. Spyridon, he is so busy, even now. I love that story.

  33. Westy Goes East Says:

    “Just as they have rendered the Church in this world invisible, so they rendered the Church in the next world mute.”

    Philip Jude, you have concisely struck the proverbial nail on the head with this quote. As a recent convert to Orthodoxy from Protestantism, this is exactly what I used to do with my ecclesiology (if you can call making the church an abstract notion “ecclesiology”).

    And in the process, they have made both of them irrelevant, only being good for a demographic census (picture a big map of the world in heaven with push-pins or lights where the individualistic members of the “invisible church” were located).

    The meaninglessness of church in this way is one of the (many) things that drove me to Orthodoxy.

  34. Thoughts on the re-vesting of St John by Oregon Priest | OrthodoxNorthwest Says:

    […] Conference was held in San Francisco headed by Archbishop Kyrill.  During the conference  the Relics of St John of Shanghai and San Francisco was re-vested.  Pictures of this rare and Holy Rite are […]

  35. wooden floor lamps Says:

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