The relics of saints are treated with particular reverence and play an important role in Orthodox worship. Since ancient times, tombs, graves and shrines with relics of saints have been gathering Christians, believing in their miraculous help. The question remains however, why do some saints’ relics remain incorruptible, while others turn to dust and bones? Does the incorruptibility of the body speak of a person’s holiness? What was the significance that the holy fathers saw in relics?
Is there a difference in the veneration of corruptible and incorruptible relics?
Christians began to venerate the relics of saints long before the birth of Christ. Moreover, in the days of the Old Testament, the word “relics” was used for bones, not bodies. For example, in Psalm 34 King David says that the Lord protects the bones of the righteous, so that “not one of them will be broken.”
The Orthodox Church adheres to the same view of relics in the times of the New Testament. In a broad sense, the word means bones (or parts of bones) of saints, and in a narrow sense – whole bodies or parts of bodies. Most of the saints whom we venerate today left behind them only dust and bones. The known 20th century examples are St Seraphim of Sarov and Hieromartyr Hermogenes, Patriarch of Moscow. However, the power of grace emanating from their relics is no less than that exuded by the incorruptible remains of other saints.
Is Incorruptibility a Touchstone of True Holiness?
Generally speaking, bodies are not considered sacred objects on the mere basis of their incorruptibility, if miracles are not shown forth from them. Many cases are known when the church did not canonize the people whose incorruptible relics were discovered.
In Orthodox practice, the incorruptibility of the body has always been treated with caution. In the old days, if a body of a little-known person was acquired, which was neither decomposed, nor exuding a fragrance, then, in the absence of manifested miracles, the church would most commonly interpret this as a sign of the person’s sinfulness. The common belief was that the ground was not “accepting” the body for spiritual reasons, likely the same reasons that would lead to excommunication of the deceased from the holy church. Commonly, such a body, often swollen and blackened, was then buried for the second time, with special prayers for the forgiveness of sins. When the body was removed again after some time, it was usually found decayed. On Athos for a long time there was a practice of opening the relics of a deceased monk 3 years after his death. If the deceased is found incorruptible and blackened, then his body is buried for one more year, during which the brethren pray fervently for his soul. If after that time the body remains unaffected by decay, then, in the absence of other signs of holiness, it is disposed into the sea.
At the same time, a person may be recognized as a saint if his relics are decayed or even completely absent. The key sign of holiness is the presence of recorded miracles occurring at the relics, coffin or grave of a deceased person. The Moscow Councils of 1547 and 1549, canonized many saints without raising the topic of uncovering relics at all. It is clear therefore that the very feat of a saint’s life as well as reliable evidence of miracles shown forth during or after his life constitute a sufficient basis for his canonization. For example, the body of St John the Theologian was never found in his grave, and the relics of St Anthony of the Caves remain hidden to this day.
In view of this, we can say that the incorruptibility of the relics is not the main reason for considering someone a saint, just as the decaying relics do not indicate the “unworthiness” of a saint. The reason why the Lord leaves the bodies of some saints incorruptible, while committing others to the ground still remains a great mystery of His Providence.
What is the Holy Relics’ True value for Believers?
The main value of the relics of saints for us is that these miraculous remains, sometimes preserved incorruptible despite the laws of nature, testify to us of the realness of eternal life.
According to the Fathers of the church, holy relics, as well as miraculous icons, are “intermediaries” left by God on earth to reveal His miraculous power to us. In addition, relics serve to remind us of the intercessors praying for us in heaven. Thus, we honor the relics of saints as we honor the saints themselves. We also venerate them as vessels of the Holy Spirit, which they acquired during their lifetime. Our genuine reverence should be expressed, according to the apostle Paul, in prayer, combined with the imitation of the lives of those who imitated Christ (1 Cor. 4:16).
St John Chrysostom also pointed out the educational significance in the holy relics. In his many writings dedicated to martyrs, the saint mentioned relics as having been left by God on earth, so that people coming to them would relieve their souls from everyday troubles and learn from the silent bodies of saints, teaching more convincingly than the preachers. He believed that reflecting on a great ascetic’s life would drive a person to a similar feat.
Moreover, in his praise to the Egyptian martyrs, St John Chrysostom proved with many examples how the relics of saints protected the city in which they were kept better than any weapon from visible and invisible enemies, sometimes even propitiating God and averting His wrath.
To this end, relics are the Lord’s invaluable gift to us, serving to strengthen our faith in salvation and signifying His mercy by miracles, manifested through the prayers of His holy saints, interceding for us in the kingdom of heaven.
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