Who Splits the Relics of Saints into "Particles" and Why?

Who and when did the fragmentation of the relics take place? Is it possible to confirm their authenticity, to find out about their origin?

In any temple you can find fragments of relics of various saints. They symbolize the special prayerful presence of a deceased righteous person, to whom a person who has come to church with a request or thanksgiving addresses.

Why do we need relics?

Relics are the remains of saints, that is, those whom God has glorified after their passing and whose presence in the world is constantly felt by believers. The holiness of the earthly Church manifests itself in the human veneration of these people, in their appearances to the living, in the miraculous events associated with their participation, in the healing and help that comes after praying to them. The remains of a saint become a source of divine power or, to put it in ecclesiastical terms, of grace. The exact formula for veneration of the relics, to which the Church adheres to this day, we find in the decisions of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787): "Our Savior Christ has given us saving sources, relics of saints, manifoldly pouring out favors on the worthy. And this by Christ, who dwells in them. Evidence of the veneration of relics can already be found in the Old Testament (see 4 Kings 13:21). Written documents of the second century confirm the existence of this tradition in the Church from the earliest times.

The Church is adamant that Christ was resurrected not only spiritually but also bodily, so Christian theology has always said that man must be holy in the fullness of his being. It is not only the soul that is sanctified, but also the body. Hence the justification for the veneration of relics - the human flesh of a righteous person is just as sanctified by grace as his soul.

Since the time of early Christianity, the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ have been celebrated in the catacombs, on the tombs of martyrs, that is, on their relics. In the modern Church, this Sacrament is also administered on the holy remains. The so-called Antimins, a quadrangular plate into which a piece of relics is sewn, is always mandatorily present on the altar in the altar of any Orthodox Church. Without it, the main Christian service, the liturgy, cannot take place. Thus the Church points out that every liturgy is attended by both the living, that is, the faithful, who are present at that time in the church (Earthly Church), and by the deceased, that is, the saints (Heavenly Church), who are present not only invisibly, but also visibly and tangibly - in the relics in the altar on the holy throne.

The incorruptibility of the relics is not a prerequisite. A person's holiness is first and foremost evidenced by his life and the miracles that occur through his prayers. On Mount Athos, for example, relics are the bones of the deceased. If a monk's body does not decay after his death, it is considered a bad omen, and they begin to pray for him intensely.

Why are relics split off into particles?

The phenomenon of the splitting of the relics consists in that it is not the body of the saint in itself that is the source of healing and miracles, but precisely the power of God that dwells in it, as the Seventh Ecumenical Council points out "...And this by Christ who dwells in them...". This power is indivisible.

Even the smallest particle allows us to touch the saint himself and the fullness of that divine grace that abides in the righteous man himself. Therefore, in order that as many people as possible may have the opportunity to touch this Power, Christians share the relics. Many of those who wonder about this tradition do not think about what happens at the Liturgy. When the priest breaks the body of Christ before Communion into pieces and dips them into the Cup, the faithful do not partake of a piece of Christ, but receive Him entirely into their lives, and they themselves, in their entirety, become part of the one, indivisible Body of Christ.

When did the tradition of splitting relics begin?

This has been going on since ancient times. Documentarily we can trace this tradition as early as the fourth century by reading the extant written sources. For example, what St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) says in his sermon: "Holy relics are inexhaustible treasures and incomparably higher than earthly treasures, precisely because these are divided into many parts and through division are reduced; but those through division into parts not only are not reduced but also reveal their wealth: such is the property of spiritual things, that through dividing they increase and through division are multiplied.

There are relics that have been hidden, moved, lost, and found. There are relics that still remain incorruptible (St. Spiridon of Trimiphunt, the Venerable Alexander of Svirsk), and there are those that have decayed over time. The greater the fame of the deceased saint, the more churches and monasteries will want a piece of his relics. Not all saints, however, had relics left behind. Sometimes it happened that after martyrs passed away, pagans destroyed their bodies by burning them or throwing them into the water.

Is there an order of transfer of relics?

There is. This order has changed over time. Both in Byzantium, in Russia, and in our time, as a rule, it was done at the request of a bishop. He would send an official letter to the temple or monastery of the other diocese (church administrative-territorial unit) with a request to split off a part of the relics. This request was considered and, if it was possible, the relics were split off, after which they were taken to the place from which the request came, either through a trusted priest or in a solemn procession. Then the relics were inserted into an icon, or a so-called reliquary (a receptacle for valuable relics, which had religious and sacred significance) was made for them and reverently kept in the temple.

Have there been cases of relics being stolen?

Yes, there are such examples. The most textbook example is the transfer of the relics of Saint Nicholas from Myra in Lycia to Bari. In fact, it was a real kidnapping. Moreover, the thieves were guided by fairly pious goals. At the time, Byzantium was under constant threat of occupation by the Turks, and Italian Christians feared that the relics of the saint might eventually be desecrated. In addition, all the sailors of the Mediterranean basin venerated Nicholas the Wonderworker as their special patron saint. Hence the desire to have the relics of the saint in their hometown. In 1087 a merchant ship with the Barrians docked at the port of Myra of Lycia. The sailors got into the church, in which the relics of the saint rested, and having seized the monks there, they began to question them about the location of the saint's sepulchre. One of the sailors, Matteo, seeing the mosaic on the floor of the temple, began to pierce it with a crowbar and soon discovered an empty space beneath it, where the relics of Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker lay. Having quickly loaded their treasure on a ship, the sailors sailed back home. Already in Bari, pieces of the saint's relics had been sent to various places. One is now in the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas in Rome, another in Saint Nicolas de Porte in France, and a third in Venice. A similar story happened with the "transfer" of the relics of the Apostle Mark from Alexandria to Venice (829) and with the body of Spyridon of Trimiphunt, which was stolen from Constantinople and brought to the island of Corfu (1456).

Are there scientific methods to verify the historical authenticity of relics?

There are. One of them is the radiocarbon method, which can be used to date the age of relics. Any organism contains carbons, which, from the moment of death of a biological being, begin to decay at a known rate - the so-called half-life. Scientists measure the amount of carbon left in the object under study and then compare it to how much it should have been originally. In this way, they can determine the approximate date of death, based on the amount of decayed carbon. This method was successfully used during the study of the head of John the Baptist in the city of Amiens. It showed that the skull is about 2000 years old. There is also anthropological (Anthropology - a set of disciplines that study humans, their origin, existence and development in natural and cultural environments. - Ed.) analysis, which was also used during these studies. He determined that it was the head of a man between 35-45 years old, and the type of skull was Semitic, which further indicated the authenticity of the Head of John the Baptist.

In addition, individual historical and canonical analysis can be used. It is carried out on the basis of a set of various historical documents and archaeological artifacts. In particular, such an analysis is required in order to confirm that this particular city, place or diocese has special rights to keep the relics of a particular saint. For example, through such historical and canonical analysis it was confirmed that the relics of the Apostles Peter and Paul were indeed found in Rome, which means that this city is the "homeland" of these holy relics. But such an analysis is not always possible. In the 2,000-year history of the Church, with all the upheavals, falls of empires, crusades and other events, it is sometimes very difficult to determine the path of a particular shrine. Sometimes researchers possess only scraps of circumstantial information with which they can at least somehow reconstruct the history of the relics.

It is important to note, however, that the ecclesiastical conscience has always relied on the evidence of its Tradition, and this reliance was justified. All the evidence of scientific research has always been regarded as auxiliary arguments, not determining in any way the question of the authenticity of the relics. In scientific circles, many characters and passages of Scripture have long been questioned. Archeological discoveries of the 20th century dispelled most of these doubts. And what will be discovered tomorrow is unknown, but the Church knows its saints better than anyone else, even if he holds a magnifying glass or measuring instrument. For the Church, the only evidence that remains fundamental is the recognition of the authenticity of the relics by the Church itself through the decisions of church councils and popular veneration.

Do Christians themselves conduct research on relics?

Yes. Catholics, after the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965), created an entire commission to determine the authenticity of all relics kept in monasteries and churches. Over a period of 10 years, all documents were rechecked and, if possible, the history of each shrine was restored. As a result, the work carried out separated those relics and shrines, whose origin and authenticity is documented, from those that we can venerate only by faith.

The Orthodox Church also knows such studies. For example, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the second finding of the relics of St. Seraphim of Sarov, which were stolen by the authorities during the Soviet period. At that time, there was little hope of finding his holy remains. When in 1990 the Museum of Atheism and Religion received information that these relics might still be found, a commission was established that conducted anthropological and historical-canonical analyses. As a result, it was conclusively established that the relics found were the relics of the Venerable Seraphim of Sarov. There is a constant contradictory evidence of research on the remains of the royal family.

It is important to note that neither in the case of the famous Catholic commission, nor in the case of scientific research on the relics at the request of the Russian Orthodox Church, have their results been and can be the basis for deciding the question of the authenticity of the relics. The final, determining word always rests with the Church herself; only She holds holiness in herself and can recognize it.


Source: pravlife.org (Russian)

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