Though the phenomenon remains a mystery for scientists, for believers, incorrupt relics are clear, tangible proof of Eternal life
Editor's note: Earlier, we published an article about incorruptible bodies, called holy relics. This article, a translation of a Russian article published on cyrillitsa.ru, explains why Russians and other Orthodox people venerate relics.
In the Orthodox Church, as well as in the Catholic one, there is a practice of venerating bodies of saints that have remained intact for decades or even centuries (For more on this phenomenon and photographs, read this article). These bodies are called holy relics or incorrupt bodies and are often found in churches, in places of honour and esteem.
Though the phenomenon remains a mystery for scientists, for believers, incorrupt relics are clear, tangible proof of Eternal life. The thousand year tradition still begets confusion in many circles and there are many misconceptions about it in the world at large.
So why do the oldest Christian churches venerate the incorrupt bodies of holy people?
Tangible Proof of Eternal Life
For believers, the incorruptibility of bodies is a reminder about the general resurrection of the dead and eternal life. For this reason, the early Christians collected the remains of holy martyrs and kept them with reverence.
Russian Metropolitan Makary (Bulgakov), who lived in the 19th century, wrote, in his book Orthodox-Dogmatic Theology characterized the incorruptibility of relics as
"The withdrawal of them, by the miraculous power of God, from the universal law of corruption, as if in a living lesson to us about the future resurrection of bodies."
The Power of Relics is Written About in the Bible
A prophecy in the Old Testament speaks about incorrupt bodies. It is said:
‘Nor wilt then give thy holy one to see corruption’ (Psalm 15:10)
Holy Men Were Full of the Holy Spirit
The veneration of holy relics follows from the Orthodox belief in the 'theosis' of the human being; in other words, the righteous man becomes deified, or like God, in this earthly, temporary life through the transforming effect of Divine Grace(according to Metropolitan Antony Pakanich).
Even before the birth of Christ, people believed that the flesh of a man full of divine spirit, after death, retains holiness.
In the Old Testament, the Book of Kings, there is one witness of this case. It tells of the resurrection of a dead person when he touched the relics of the prophet Elisha.
So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet (2 Kings 13:21 (NKJV)
The Early Church Decreed the Veneration of Relics
The decision about the veneration of incorrupt relics was made in 787 AD at the Second Council of Nicea.
According to the ruling, the incorrupt relics do not perform miracles themselves, but the miracles occur by the power of the Holy Spirit that resides in them.
The Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council (a series of decisive councils conducted by the Church to determine Christian doctrine and practice), relying on the experience of the church, called the relics ‘saving springs, pouring grace upon the weak.’
For any Christian, it is important to understand, that the Holy Spirit can manifest not only through Holy Relics but through physical things, that belonged to the holy people.
Thus, in Acts of the Apostles, it is told how, when the handkerchiefs and aprons of Apostle Paul were laid upon the sick, they were healed of sickness and evil spirits. (Acts 19:12).
Misconception #1: Veneration, not Worship
The practice of serving the liturgy over the tombs of the martyrs dates back as far as the veneration of relics.
After the end of the persecution of Christians in the east, churches were built right on the tombs of Christian martyrs.
In every Orthodox church, there are relics in a special ark, over which the Divine Liturgy is celebrated.
Protestants are frequently of the opinion that the worship of relics, even if they belonged to holy men, is not at all a God-pleasing practice.
However, the Orthodox tradition is based on the Fathers of the Church, which always drew a clear line between worship, which can only be directed at God, and veneration, which is the respect and reverence that is directed at sacred items, such as icons or relics.
Metropolitan Anatoly (Pakanich) says on this question
“ When we venerate holy relics, we do not worship them, as we worship God, but we venerate them, like vessels of the Holy Spirit, which the saints acquired when they were still alive and who continue to work through their holy relics.
The real veneration of the holy relics is the same as the veneration of the saints of God: prayer combined with the attempt to imitate of the lives of those who imitated Christ. "
Misconception 2: Not a ‘Condition’ for Sainthood
According to the teaching of the Church, even though incorruptibility is often a sign of sanctity, it is not a necessary condition for canonizing a person as a saint
In the process of canonization, more attention is given to whether miracles occur when people pray to the revered person. If there is no evidence of miracles, the canonization does not occur