In many religions there is a commemoration of those who lived exemplary lives of piety and service, people that we commonly refer to as saints. It is customary to celebrate their lives and remember the good that they had done here on earth, and particularly in our Christian tradition the liturgical calendar is full of feast days to venerate many of the popular ones that have left this world with a glorious legacy behind them. We celebrate such heroes of faith certainly because recalling their holiness and loving actions we are inspired to do better ourselves. But more importantly we remember them because though they are on the “other side,” they continue to be a part of the family of faith.
Particularly within Christianity, there is a strong belief in the ancient creeds affirming that the community of the faithful spans from heaven to earth, and though there may be a veil separating us from those who have gone on before, they are certainly not gone and not out of the picture. We call this concept the “Communion of Saints” which has at its heart the unity of the living and the dead as members of one greater family.
Just as we asked them to pray for us when they were alive, we continue to ask the departed to make intercession for us to God, an activity which is certainly an important part of their lives in the heavenly realms. That they intercede for us even now is an idea that is substantiated both in the ancient Jewish and Christian traditions. In the period when the Jews were under the tyranny of their Syrian overlords we have one such account that testifies to the concern of the saints for those of us who continue in the land of the living. Judas Maccabeus who was leading the revolt against the cruel rulers shared a vision with his soldiers to encourage them in their efforts. Recounting from Book of Maccabees, “What he saw was this: Onias who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained since childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. Then likewise a man appeared distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvellous majesty and authority. And Onias spoke saying, ‘This is a man who loves the brethren and prays much for the people and the holy city, Jeremiah the prophet of God.” Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: ‘Take this holy sword, a gift from God with which you will strike down your adversaries.’”
In the Christian tradition, a similar idea is conveyed though in a more general sense. The Apostle John wrote of the intercession of the saints several times in his Revelation to affirm the reality of the prayers of those who now live beyond the grave. Relating a vision, the apostle wrote how he saw “the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fall down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” In Christian symbolism, incense has typically been seen as a metaphor for prayers because of its slow ascent heavenward and toward the throne of God, and in this passage John relates to us how the holy ones who now abide in heaven lift up their prayers to God on our behalf.
That we should have friends in heaven whose work it is to aid us in this way is a tremendous benefit to those of us in the land of the living. Because those who are citizens of heaven have been purified and are free from sin, they are much closer to God than we who are still struggling here below in the physical world. James, the brother of the Lord said, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects,” and for this reason the intercession of the saints is significantly more potent than what we can offer here below. Those men and women of God who have become perfected people in the Kingdom of Heaven are one step above us on the ladder to God’s throne, and in that capacity they operate as links in the chain between heaven and earth, not only presenting the prayers of mortals to God but also channelling his divine power back down to us.
Because the living have long acknowledged this great position that is possessed by those dwelling in the Kingdom of God, they have from ages past sought the intercession of the saints for help here in what has been appropriately called the “valley of tears.” In attempting to contact those who dwell in the higher spheres, mortal men and women have often sought out tangible ways to get a hold of them. Certainly in the history of the church, paintings and statues of departed holy ones have figured prominently in the religious life of the faithful. Ultimately these images have functioned as a means of establishing psychic contact with the denizens of heaven, for being able to concentrate on a likeness of someone whether living or dead enables ready communication between the two parties.
But even more effective than the use of a mere picture at forming a link with a saint is something more intimate, what usually has been the personal belongings of the holy person when they were on earth. Whether an article of clothing worn by the godly individual or a personal effect that he/she used or even the body of the deceased itself, making use of such immediately personal items has proven to be the most fruitful way of forging a connection with a saint in higher realms.
We call such articles as these relics, and they have a long history not only in the Christian but in other major religions of the world. That many miracles and answers to prayer have come to those who have touched or come near to such things is attested by century upon century of religious history. That such objects should be so efficacious we attribute to spiritual law, for when a person uses such devices in prayer, he is effectively entering a portal to heaven through a link with the holy person who once owned these things. The supplicant’s faith coupled with the saint’s ability to channel the power of God may often lead to a great downpouring of divine favors upon the mortal who seeks heavenly assistance.
Certainly this psychic connection is the reason for why relics are so often useful in producing a result, but this is only part of the explanation. To varying degrees the relics themselves are charged with spiritual power according to the measure of the saint’s holiness and the amount or type of contact he/she had with the object in life. The possessions of the saints become laden with spiritual energy simply by virtue of the fact that the divine power flowing through the holy person spills over onto inanimate objects infusing them with a character that is not unlike blessed objects in the use of the church. In much the same way that the Chalice and Paten are instilled with power because they have been in direct contact with the Body and Blood of Christ, so too are the former possessions of the saints soaked in a spiritual force from exposure to these holy people.
This type of spiritual knowledge is ancient, and the veneration of relics in one form or another seems to be as old as religion itself. So we see more or less a universal respect for these kinds of articles around the world. In ancient Greece for example, it was not uncommon to display the remains of a hero in some auspicious place in the city. At times the bones of these highly revered people would be regarded to have a particular power such as the divine shoulder of Pelops in Olympia. The tombs of other larger than life figures were said to provide a form of divine protection for cities such as Athens, and Thebes claimed a center of healing around the tomb of one of its great prophets.
Much further to the East, in India veneration of the dead figured in very early in the religion of Buddhism. At the death of its founder, the ashen remains of the Buddha were divided up into eight portions and each was enshrined in a special mound shaped sanctuary. With time and the emergence of more saints of this religion, the ashes of the holy departed were frequently interred in these buildings which served as places of meditation and prayer.
Much more could be said about the practice of various cultures in terms of their reverence for the holy objects of the dead, but we turn our attention now exclusively to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we find a thread of respect for the articles of the saints spanning from the time of the Old Testament into the Apostolic Age and all the way up until the current day.
We begin with a story from the Books of Moses which is properly not a story about the relics of the saints, but because it describes the same mechanism by which actual relics are effective in producing answers to prayer, healing, and other miracles, we relate the narrative as an introduction. In the time when the children of Israel were wandering through the desert there was an outbreak of poisonous snakes among them such that many people were dying. Coming to Moses for help, they petitioned the prophet to do something, and so Moses prayed to God for a remedy for the affliction. He was told to erect a bronze snake on a pole such that anyone who had been bitten yet looked on the image would be healed. And we are told that those who followed that instruction indeed survived.
A fairly unique narrative in the scriptures, the story of the Brazen Serpent illustrates the psychic laws which we have alluded to a little earlier being put to work for miraculous healing. Those Israelites who gazed upon the symbol Moses erected were able to draw sufficient spiritual power from it to counteract their injuries and promote healing. The mechanism by which it worked is very much analogous to how concentrating on a voodoo doll can inflict harm on the victim when the practitioner stares upon it with malicious intent. While of course the practice of voodoo is an example of psychic energy being used in a negative way, the principle remains the same.
Much in the same way that blessed or consecrated objects in the Church serve as devices of divine power, so too was the bronze serpent that Moses erected on a staff. Not that the image had any inherent spiritual power of its own, but once it was dedicated to that purpose it became a tangible and very potent point of contact to the spiritual realms and the power of God. Like a doorway to the heavens and the reservoir of spiritual resources that reside in that lofty place, the bronze serpent and for that matter any blessed object may serve as a vehicle for tapping into the higher realms. All that was necessary to connect with the healing energy was for one to make mental contact with the object. Such is the power of basic meditation especially when coupled with a little faith.
This basic principle is at the heart of all such stories we shall relate from the Bible pertaining to the veneration of relics, and so we turn next to the first clear example of how the personal belongings of holy Israelites were employed to produce a miraculous result. It involves the great prophet Elijah and his servant Elisha, and in fact all three Old Testament accounts that we will survey involve these two men.
When it was time for Elijah to leave this world behind, his soon-to-be successor Elisha clung to him until the moment of his departure. Elijah asked his servant what he could do for him before his exit from mortal life, and Elisha boldly asked to inherit a double portion of his spirit. Not sure if this would be granted or not, Elijah was whisked away from his protégé in a fiery chariot. But in the aftermath, Elisha picked up the great prophet’s cloak which had fallen to the ground when he was taken away. Amazingly Elijah’s garment still retained a tremendous amount of spiritual power, for when Elisha struck the water of the Jordan with it, the river parted in two and he was able to walk across on dry ground. The company of the prophets who saw this aptly observed, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” In fact they were right, for not only through the cloak which was laden with divine energy but through the strong psychic link Elisha had with his master beyond the grave, he was able to retain the spiritual authority of Elijah.
Just a couple chapters after this narrative in the Book of Kings we come across another story in which use is made of relics. By this time Elisha was becoming popular in the land and he came to know well a woman from the town of Shunem who would give him a meal and lodging whenever he came that way on his itinerant circuit. He felt compassion for her because she couldn’t have children, and so promised her that she would bear a son in a year’s time.
Just as the prophet predicted, the woman became pregnant and gave birth. The child grew and all was well until some years later the young boy out of the clear blue apparently suffered some kind of brain haemorrhage or aneurysm and died. Clearly distressed, she did what seemed the best option at the time and laid her limp son on the bed that Elisha routinely slept in when he came to visit. Undoubtedly she felt that putting him on the bed of the man of God was in the best interest of the child, for whether or not she should get her boy back she knew that of all articles in the house the bed would have the most spiritual power infused in it through its association with Elisha.
However she didn’t cease her attempts to revive her son with that action. Quickly saddling up her donkey, she made haste to Mount Carmel where she found Elisha. In bitterness of heart she promptly related what had happened. But rather than come himself right away to help, for an unknown reason the prophet sent his servant Gehazi as a first attempt to revive the boy. Perhaps it was because Elisha was older and couldn’t run as fast as his disciple, but whatever the case, the prophet instructed Gehazi to take his staff and place it on the boy’s face when he got to the home. Indeed Elisha realized that next to himself, his staff was charged with a great spiritual force and that alone might resurrect the child while he was still en route to the woman’s house.
Though Elisha had wagered on its efficacy, apparently it wasn’t quite enough to do the job, and so appearing in person he did the most he could do to raise the child from the dead. Attempting to make full psychic contact with the boy, he laid himself on the child mouth to mouth, eye to eye, and hand to hand so that the maximum amount of divine energy could flow through him into the woman’s son. And the passage tells us that this did in fact work, for the boy grew warm and upon reviving was given back to his mother.
Though Elisha was a mighty prophet in life, he was apparently not the least bit diminished in death, for at the close of his life there is another fascinating story of resurrection through his association. We are told that the prophet died and was buried, and after that brief statement there appears to be an interpolation added to the text by a later editor describing a miracle that took place at the tomb of Elisha, presumably quite a few years later.
The passage says, “Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring. Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet.” It would seem that this was a very welcome though unexpected result, for the men weren’t interested in reviving their dead friend but simply getting away in a hurry to escape the clutches of the Moabites. This resurrection miracle came about simply through contact with the divine power still present in the holy prophet’s bones years after his death, for we are not in the least led to believe that the men burying their friend even attempted to exercise faith or make some sort of mental connection with the remains of Elisha to accomplish this marvel.
So much for the Old Testament! As we peruse the New Testament and other stories from the Apostolic Age we see an expansion in the use and veneration of relics, for the tradition of the Jews was continued in the Christian faith with no less miraculous results.
Both biblical and extra-biblical writings attest to the use of relics, and in the latter there are numerous examples beginning even with the childhood of Jesus. The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ tells the story of the time the Holy Family was in Egypt, when Christ was a mere infant. One miraculous narrative reads, “On the morrow, [a] woman brought perfumed water to wash the Lord Jesus, and when she had washed him, she preserved the water. And there was a girl there whose body was white with leprosy who being sprinkled with this water and washed was instantly cleansed of her leprosy.” While it must be admitted that this apocryphal work derives from a later date than the time of the apostles and is somewhat fantastic in its content, it does nonetheless convey that there was a tradition of belief in miraculous events in the life in the Holy Child and a number of them through what we would call relics of Infant.
Turning to the canonical gospels themselves, we can recall a few accounts which involve indirect healing from the Savior. That is to say, they relate how objects that had been in physical contact with Jesus were in turn used to cure the disease of the infirmed. One such passage tells of how a man born blind was healed by Christ after he spit on the ground and making mud put it on the eyes of man. Then Jesus instructed him to go wash in the Pool of Siloam and he began to see from that point on. What we infer from this is that though separated from his body, the Savior’s saliva was still pregnant with his divine power and was therefore very efficacious to produce healing. Not that this was the only time that he did this, for we have the account in the gospel of Mark of the healing of another blind man in which the Lord spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on them. Apparently the first attempt was only partly successful because the man’s vision was restored but blurry. A second laying on of Jesus’ hands was then necessary to impart perfect vision, and all we can deduce from this is that some cases are more difficult than others, even for God in the flesh. Of course we must remember that Christ’s condescension to humanity meant a necessary limitation of his divine power, and so it seems that he used a variety of techniques to heal, some more aggressive than others.
Another classic example of such indirect modes of healing comes to us again from the gospel of Mark. The well known story tells of how there was a large crowd pressing in on Jesus including an infirmed woman who had been subject to some kind of chronic bleeding for twelve years. Perhaps coming to the conclusion that she couldn’t get his attention for a direct audience, she considered that perchance just touching the hem of his garment would be enough to bring her healing. Indeed it did, for power issued forth from the clothing and made the woman whole again. The narrative certainly illustrates how divine energy can proceed from inanimate objects but it also serves to communicate the psychic element in healing, for Jesus said to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.” Making contact with a relic may heal in and of itself, but when it is coupled with faith the potential is greatly intensified, for one opens up a channel to the higher realms, even to the throne of God himself. Apparently this woman of faith wasn’t alone in her belief that the clothes of the Savior had the power to heal, for Matthew tells us that “People brought all their sick to him and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.”
Returning again to the extra-biblical writings of the Early Church, we consider now a story from the Acts of the Apostle Thaddeus who according to tradition evangelized what is now modern day Syria. In the work is the account of Abgarus who was king of the city of Edessa which became converted to Christianity through the ministry of this apostle. Abgarus had been suffering from some unspecified disease, possibly leprosy according to legend. While Christ was still on earth, he sent one of his couriers named Ananias to Palestine to find the Savior, and having found him he requested that Jesus wash his face and dry it with a towel. According to the story, the image of the Lord’s face became imprinted on this linen, and then Jesus sent Ananias back to his king with the cloth and a message that after his resurrection he would send Thaddeus to enlighten him and guide him and the city into all truth. We are told that once the courier returned, King Abgarus adored the image of the Savior upon the linen and was cured of his disease.
That this is not just another pious story of the Apostolic Age seems to be corroborated by a couple ancient letters that we have between Christ and Abgarus. In the first, the king writes to the Savior asking him for a visit to cure his illness. In the second letter, Jesus replies that he is unable to come because of his obligations among the Jewish people but he promises to send one of his disciples after his resurrection to help him. Though very brief, the authenticity of these letters is vouched for by the 4th century Bishop of Caesarea and church historian Eusebius who attests that he found these letters in the public records of Edessa written in Syriac.
It seems very possible that this legendary cloth is the same as the famous Shroud of Turin which also is very likely the burial cloth of Jesus which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped his body in. It may also be identical to what is known as Veronica’s veil, the story of which is found in the Apocryphal Acts of Pilate and describes how a pious woman wiped the face of Christ along the Via Dolorosa. The account says, “Seeing Christ with His face bathed in sweat and covered with blood, Veronica wiped it with a new scarf and it was only after the Resurrection that she found that the cloth had been imprinted with His Image. Thereafter she used the relic to heal the sick in and around Jerusalem until taken to Rome to cure the Emperor Tiberias, who although revived was murdered soon afterwards. Thereafter the image came into the possession of Clement, the disciple of St Peter and eventually his third successor as Bishop of Rome.” That the woman’s name was really Veronica seems unlikely, for the word is a Latin-Greek compound meaning “true image.” Whatever might have been the case, there seems to be ample evidence that some sort of cloth with the image of Jesus was extant in the Early Church and possibly even today and was employed to heal the infirmed.
Moving back to the New Testament once again, we consider the ministry of the apostles for evidence of relics as devices of divine power. From the Book of Acts we have a couple passages that speak of peripheral objects that had been in contact with an apostle and were subsequently used to perform wonders. We are told, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.” Apparently so powerful was the aura of spiritual force around the apostles that it could be communicated to the people without being directly touched. In this vain, an early narrative in the book chronicles how “people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.”
So firm was the apostolic tradition regarding the power of relics that it spilled over into the practice of the Early Church. Almost certainly before the last of the Twelve was dead, a custom was in place in Rome in the subterranean burial grounds of the city. It was normal for the pagans to cremate the bodies of their dead, but for Christians and Jews burial was the normal option. They laid their loved ones to rest in caverns cut into the soft rock of the hillsides around the city. In this underground maze of stairs and narrow passageways were constructed small chambers containing the remains of the deceased sealed under stone slabs.
Commonly known as the catacombs, these burial chambers were a favorite hiding spot of the Christians especially during times of persecution. The Romans were very superstitious and fearful of ghosts, particularly those of their enemies. And so only a brave soul would dare venture into the crypt of a Christian, especially the martyr that he put to death. So there the Christians would gather and celebrate the Mass in secret, though not on any sort of table that they brought in from outside. Rather, they offered the Eucharist on the stone slabs underneath which were the bones of an important martyr.
Possibly as early as the persecution under Nero in the late 60s A.D. was this custom underway, and it seems that these crypts functioning as altars were in view by the Apostle John when he wrote in his Revelation, “I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.” Of course the theology behind this practice had a strong footing, for the early Christians recognized that the bones of the holy martyrs provided a tangible psychic link to the heavenly realms. So seeking to exploit this reality they offered the Holy Sacrifice over the tombs of the saints hoping to gain the benefits of their powerful intercession, especially at the down flow of spiritual power during the Consecration.
Not just in the catacombs, the Eucharist was offered at the graves of holy men and women throughout the Empire. The apocryphal Acts of John which purports to tell stories of the apostle and his work describes one such event. A pious woman named Drusiana died and was buried in her tomb. On the third day after her death, the book informs us that John accompanied by her widower Andronicus and other brethren came to her sepulcher at dawn “that they might break bread there.” Of course this was the biblical and extra-biblical euphemism for celebrating the Mass, and we are told that this group of faithful entered into Drusiana’s tomb to perform the ancient liturgy.
With the legalization of Christianity in the 4th century, the need to hold religious services in hiding was gone, and so the Eucharist moved from the underground into the open. But the faithful did not quickly forget its tradition and its belief in the power of the saints and their earthly belongings. A number of churches were constructed over cemeteries like the Old Saint Peter’s Basilica so that there could remain a close connection particularly with the martyrs which were buried there. While the altar was no longer properly the stone slab of a crypt, it was constructed in a way to obtain the same effects. It became commonplace to carve out within the altar stone a small cavity in which to place the relics of one or more saints. Whether a fragment of bone, a piece of clothing, or other personal belonging, the earthly vestiges of renowned holy men and women were encased in the altar itself. One 4th century altar slab now in a museum in France has a cavity in the stone which once contained a number of relics. The inscription on the slab suggests that the wood of the Cross along with some relics of Peter and Paul along and several other martyrs were embedded in the altar at one time.
By the Second Council of Nicaea in 787, it was decreed that every altar should contain a relic which made it clear that it was the normal practice in the Early Church as indeed it is today among Catholics and Orthodox. The consecration of a church always involves some use of relics, and particularly in the Orthodox churches, the consecrating bishop will place such holy objects on a paten and then leading a procession will carry the relics around the building three times before finally placing them in the altar as part of the consecration service.
Not only pertaining to the construction of altars, the testimony of the Early Church is overwhelming concerning reverence and veneration for the earthly remains of the saints and martyrs. We can get a feel for their deep respect in the account of the death of Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna when he was martyred in the mid-2nd century. After this father of the church was burned at the stake, his disciples wished to carry off his remains. His faithful followers recorded their sentiments in a letter saying, “We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.”
Other Early Church Fathers like Gregory of Nyssa expressed similar feelings for the relics of the saints. He said, “And as for touching the relics themselves, if that should ever be our happiness, only those who have experienced it and who have had their wish gratified can know how much this is desirable and how worthy a recompense it is of aspiring prayer.” Apparently Gregory knew first hand the powerful way that genuine relics can enhance prayer and one’s connection to the heavenly realms and ultimately to God.
That an abundance of miracles were still being procured even after the Apostolic Age had ended is attested by the great men of the church upon which the theology and tradition of the later church was built. That “the blind and crippled were restored to health, and the dead recalled to life, and devils expelled from the bodies of men” at the tombs of the martyrs is no mere pious fable. For Saints Ambrose and Augustine they are unquestionable facts, for the two church leaders not only heard and read about them but witnessed many of them with their own eyes.
To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia, “In his City of God, Augustine gives numerous instances of miracles wrought by soil from the Holy Land flowers which had touched a reliquary or had been laid upon a particular altar, oil from the lamps of the church of a martyr, or by other things not less remotely connected with the saints themselves.” For him and all of the great doctors of the Church with Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages up until the present time, the veneration of holy relics was always considered highly recommended, because such men knew of the tremendous benefits that could be communicated to the faithful through them.
Spanning from the Old Testament to the New, from the Apostolic Age to the Early Church, and from the Dark Ages until the present time, we see a theological thread which rightly recognizes the saints and their earthly vestiges and belongings as great conduits of divine power for those who will make use of them. Sometimes by way of faith and sometimes without it, those who have made contact with the relics of the saints and martyrs have often received miracles, answers to prayer, and divine favors if only just a closer connection to God. The Judeo-Christian tradition is strong regarding the veneration of relics as indeed also is the tradition of other great faiths. Indeed reverence for relics may even be as old as religion itself, and the testimony of the ages affirms that it is much more than a superstitious practice, for the objective results of this ritual speak for themselves.