WHEN THE AVERAGE AMERICAN SEES a skull or skeleton displayed, it is probably Halloween. When the Eastern Christian sees a skull or other bones put forth for veneration in church, it is the deification of our nature that comes to mind. It is particu-larly appropriate that we venerate the relics of the Saints during the Great Fast, as the ultimate transformation of our nature, theosis, is the basis for what we do in the Fast. Created in God’s image, we are meant to reflect His divine goodness in us as in a mirror.
Because of the Fall, however, we need to be recreated in order for us to reflect God. When we strive to grow in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other expressions of devotion, we express concretely our hope for the ultimate re-creation of our nature in Christ.
That re-creation begins at our baptism where we are ontologically united to God in Christ and become by adoption what Christ is by nature. To cherish and preserve this union takes the effort of what has been called “spiritual warfare” or “the ascetic struggle,” the effort on our part to live out in our daily lives what we have become in Baptism.
In some of the Saints, we see visible manifestations of the likeness of God which has developed in them. They display gifts of knowledge or discernment, their intercession may effect healings or preserve from danger. They become icons of the love of God on earth. The Church recognizes their holiness by glorifying them and making icons to suggest graphically their likeness to God.
Theosis Reflected in Holy Relics
Since the early days of the Church, Christians have celebrated the holiness of those who have gone before them by honoring their relics: their remains or objects associated with them during their lives. During times of persecution, Chris-tians treasured these mementos secretly in their homes; when circumstances allowed, they erected shrines to house these relics and celebrate the memory of these saints whose lives reflected the divine presence within them.
Moderns, used to the highly sanitized treatment of death and burial in our day, might be shocked at the idea of kissing skulls and other body parts. Even in our churches, where the last kiss is a traditional part of the funeral service, we find people put off by the idea of kissing a dead body. In earlier periods, where death was not considered something to be hidden away behind cosmetics and canned music, such contact was a normal consequence of the relationship one has with deceased family or friends.
In that context, reverence for the physical remains of the martyrs and other saints may be considered an act of faith that the entire physical creation does have the potential for being transfigured and that the human body in particular participates in the restoration of humanity.
Incorrupt and Healing Remains
The bodies of some saints remain, at least for a time, without any of the usual signs of decay, even though they have not been chemically preserved in any way. Their bodies were so sanctified by divine grace during their lives that, even after death, they were preserved from decomposing. In many cases these relics would even exude myrrh or emit a sweet fragrance, physically wit-nessing to the saint’s holiness. As St John of Damascus attested, “The Lord Christ granted us the relics of the Saints to be fountains of salvation for us, pouring forth manifold bles-sings and abounding in sweetly fragrant oil.”
The second-century martyr, St Cecilia, is perhaps the first to manifest this gift of incorruptibility. When her body was ex-humed at the end of the sixteenth century, it was found to be incorrupt. Her relics still lie in the Church of St Cecilia on the island of Trastevere in the Tiber, reputedly the site of her own home.
Sometimes these manifestations ceased once the Church took steps to glorify the saint. The body of St Charbel, the Lebanese hermit who died in 1898, was exhumed after a bright light was seen surrounding his grave for 45 nights after his burial. His body was found to be in perfect condition, although it was floating on mud in the rain-soaked grave. Examined again in 1927 and 1950, the body was found to be free of corruption. When he was beatified in 1965, the phenom-enon was found to have ceased.
At other times, these signs would recur regularly over the years, perhaps on the saint’s feast. The tomb of St Nicholas of Myra, who died in 346, was said to emit a sweet-smelling liquid with healing proper-ties. With the Turkish seizure of Asia Minor in the eleventh century, the relics were taken to Bari in Italy and placed in a new marble tomb. The same phenomenon began to take place at this tomb and has continued to this day.
Healing through the relics of the Saints is perhaps best illustrated in the case of St Nectarios of Aegina, a saintly hierarch who died of prostate cancer in an Athens charity hospital in 1920. In the next bed, was a man who had been paralyzed for many years. As soon as the Metropolitan expired, a nurse and a nun who had cared for him began preparing his body for burial. They removed the old sweater he was wearing and placed it on the bed of the paralyzed man to get it out of the way. As they continued preparing the saint’s body, the paralyzed man began gaining strength and arose from his bed, healthy, glorifying God who had healed him in this way, the first of countless healings attributed to the intercession of St Nectarios. The room where he died was filled with such a powerful fragrance that it could not be used for patients. It is now a shrine to the saint.
Relics in Our Church
Relics play an important role in our Church, because they point to one of the most basic beliefs mentioned in the Creed, the ultimate resurrection of all flesh in the age to come. Major relics, such as intact bodies, skulls or major body parts are often carried in procession for solemn veneration. Such relics, like noteworthy icons, are often sent from one local Church to another to increase people’s reverence for them and for what they represent. Thus, in 2017, relics of St Nicholas were sent from Bari to Moscow, with the blessing of Pope Francis. The relics remained in Russia for two months where over one million Orthodox Christians lined up to venerate them.
Many churches have fragments of relics from the bodies or garments of the Saints. They may be encased in reliquaries or em-bedded in icons for veneration. Icons are also encased in the holy tables of conse-crated churches, a reminder of the first centuries when the Liturgy was frequently served at martyrs’ graves. In the Byzantine Churches, such relics are sewn into each antimension placed under the chalice and diskos during the Divine Liturgy. Thus, every Liturgy is served over the remains or belongings of a saint.
Reverence for relics, like our veneration of icons, is particularly timely during the Great Fast, as it reminds us of the divine life dwelling in those who truly live the Chris-tian life. In the sanctified remains of the Saints, we see that the state of deification which they attained during this life is prolonged in their bodies after death. The energy of their sanctification does not forsake the body after death; it remains, sometimes in a manifest way, in anticipation of the transfigured bodies of the Saints in the life of the age to come.