Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Holy Relics - Sign of the Incarnation

Dear N.:

Irony of ironies, it seems modernist C of E Anglicans have in the last decade rediscovered, at Saint Alban's Shrine at least, that most anciently catholic and yet controverted practice of the enshrining of holy Relics. Now if only they could reappropriate to themselves the dogmatic tradition of the ancient Church! I hope I do not disappoint you by telling you that in fact I find the veneration of Relics, if done according to the strictest canons and traditions of the Church, to be a perfectly orthodox and spiritually salutary practice. Indeed the enshrinement of the Relics of the Saints and their veneration is older than the canonised New Testament, older than the original Creed of Nicea, older than the organisation of the undivided Church into Patriarchates. The practice harkens back to the earliest Fathers and Saints of the sub-apostolic period.

Authentic relics can be a wondrous treasure of catholic faith and liturgical tradition, if used correctly:

It is often the case in Apostolic Churches that the Altar dedicated in a chapel to a particular Saint contains at least one Relic of the Saint so commemorated, but, strictly speaking, Altar stones in the Catholic tradition must contain the Relic of a Martyr, one who died for Christ and the Church and who has been officially canonised as such. This tradition harkens back to the passion and commemoration of the second-century Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, whose bones were entombed and venerated in a Christian Altar, the first such recorded case of the use of a Martyr's Relics to hallow and consecrate the mensa on which the Holy Mysteries are offered. Christians 'gathered the bones of Saint Polycarp as a treasure more precious than precious stones and purer than gold, and placed them for the celebration of the day of his heavenly birth, and for the instruction and confirmation of future Christians.' In turn the ancient catholic practice echoes the Book of Revelation 6.9ff, in which we see the Martyrs under the heavenly Altar awaiting the judgement and the general resurrection. An Eucharistic Altar in a Catholic Church may contain many Relics, including those of a patron Saint, but always by tradition contain the relic of an holy Martyr. On the Altar of Saint Alban's Cathedral we use an antimension, a Byzantine Rite 'Altar,' which is actually a cloth into which the bone fragment of a Martyr is sown and which is used as a portable Altar. The cloth bears an iconic portrayal of Our Lord's Burial. Our particular antimension, very oddly, is Uniate and contains a Relic of Saint Josaphat, a seventeenth century papalist Greek Rite bishop martyred by the Orthodox. Some Anglo-Catholics restored the use of Relics in Altars for the celebration of Mass in the nineteenth century. The sale of Relics is forbidden canonically and morally. However, one may make a donation or financial gift to the church or person who possesses the Relic in order to compensate for the reliquary used in housing a Relic. Under no circumstances are Relics broken up, destroyed or discarded - that would be a sin of blasphemy. They must be treated with the greatest care and with the utmost reverence. In the Anglican Church they are displayed or processed liturgically only in the extremely rarest of circumstances, and their use is normally regulated by the Bishop of the local Diocese.

Anglicans are not obliged to venerate the Relics of the Saints, just as they are not obliged to solicit the gracious prayers of the Saints on our behalf, but, just as they are not compelled so to venerate or to request, so they would be wrong to say that such practices are contrary to Scripture and Tradition. For Anglicans, the practice of the invocation of the Saints is limited in the main to private devotions and extraliturgical services which are not part of the usual public Liturgy. However, I ever say veneration is certainly to be encouraged and has never been rejected by the Anglican Church, which counts herself a true Apostolic Church practicing the fullness of the Catholic Faith, of which the Communion of Saints is a supreme article. Please note that Article of Religion XXII does not condemn the ancient or patristic or biblical doctrine concerning the Invocation of Saints and the veneration of their Relics, but only the Romish, the Doctrina Romanensium, that is, the popularly-believed late medieval and thus erroneous view of the same. The Anglican teaching is the reformed Catholic view, anchored in the Holy Scriptures and the Tradition of the Primitive Church. Only that which is contained in Holy Scripture is reckoned by Anglicans to be necessary for salvation, and therefore only that doctrine of the state and prayers of the Saints which accords with Scripture is believed to be necessary for all Christians.

At the heart of the matter it is vital to maintain the doctrine of worship and honour presented by Saint John of Damascus and codified at the Seventh Ecumenical Council when dealing with Saints (and their Icons and Relics), which doctrine forcefully distinguishes adoration of God and the honour of the Saints. Latria, adoratio, adoration, is divine worship offered to the Godhead alone. Only God the Holy Trinity is worshipped and adored. The worship of God, the Divine Essence, is absolute, offered to God Himself because He is and the rewarder of them that seek Him. The honour given to the Saints is dulia, proskunesis, timeo, veneration, reverence, respect. It is not worship - for we do not worship the Saints, we only honour and revere them. Such honour is strictly relative and passes from the Saint to God, Who is blessed and glorified in His Saints, His human heavenly friends and children. The distinction between the Creator and His creatures is strenuously maintained and asserted. From later tradition, the Blessed Virgin Mary, because she is Mother of God, has been given the highest form of relative honour and reverence, called hyperdulia or super-veneration, the highest praise rendered to a creature. Our Lady and the Saints are, after all, creatures, human beings who have become by God's grace truly and ultimately human, for that is the very reality of Sainthood, to be restored to the fullest image and likeness of God, to once again become fully man. The Saints, by becoming by grace what God is by nature, by partaking of the divine nature (II Saint Peter 1.4), fulfil the human vocation and become, through theosis or divinisation, 'God-like.'

The veneration of the Relics of the Saints is actually based on the same theological principle on which the Holy Icons are venerated, and as are the honourable memories of the Saints themselves, the axiomatic principle of the Incarnation of the Word of God. In a nutshell, because God Himself was made Man for our sake and was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary to redeem and divinise human nature, and because the glorified human nature of the Risen Lord communicates the Holy Ghost to the members of the redeemed human family, the communio sanctorum, and thus makes the bodies of the Saints to be temples, dwelling-places of the Holy Spirit, the bodies of those who are acknowledged to have possessed heroic sanctity in this life are honoured, venerated as holy possessions of God and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit. A sober, healthy, balanced, sane, biblical theology of the Saints and of their earthly Relics is intensely incarnational and sacramental - the flesh is honoured as the vehicle of the Spirit. By honouring the bodies of the Saints, and by honouring their holy Images, we are taught to honour each other and to recognise in the human body, redeemed and sanctified in Christ, the locus of the Spirit of God.

Clearly, as any objective student will confess, the medieval western cult of the Saints and of their Relics was subject to the grossest abuse and perversion. But again here we have another case of 'baby and bathwater.' The later abuses connected to the Relics and veneration of the Saints do not of themselves render the original primitive and patristic tradition regarding Saints and Relics invalid. A practice of such Christian veneration, scrupulously governed and preserved from abuse, can be an overwhelmingly profound reminder of the sanctity of the whole creation itself, the sanctity of the human person incorporated into Christ, the intrinsic holiness of the human body as the sacrament of the Holy Spirit and the image and likeness of God, the power, grace and efficacy of the Sacraments, and of the ultimate future destiny of the redeemed human person in the New Man of the Resurrection, the second Man Who is the Lord from Heaven.

Historically the Holy Catholic Church, East and West, has honoured Relics in at least the following ways:

1. The preservation of the Saints' bodies and their places of burial.
2. The discovery and translation of Relics to Churches and Shrines.
3. The construction of Altars and Churches on the sites of Relics.
4. The canonisation of feast days in honour of Relic translations.
5. The making of pilgrimages to and the decoration of Relic Shrines.
6. The enshrining of Relics in Altars for the celebration of Mass.
7. The association of miraculous signs and wonders with Relics.

Anciently, the Catholic Church did not distinguish between venerating the souls of the Saints in heaven and the bodies of the Saints on earth. Both forms of veneration were (and are) given. The Old Testament people considered the bodies of the dead ritually unclean because their deliverance in the Incarnation had not yet arrived. The enfleshment of the Saviour would change everything. Man in Christ becomes holy, the body of man is restored as the temple of the Spirit. The Eternal Word forever united a human body to His Divinity in His Divine Person; the human bodies of Christians, regenerated by Holy Baptism, now become the receptacles of the Most Precious Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and thus become living temples of the Holy Ghost. By extension, the bodies of those acknowledged to have lived lives of supernatural charity and holiness, or who have died for the sake of Christ, are understood to be worthy of special honour.

We see from the Old Testament that the bodies of the Saints would, in Christ, possess a special sanctity. God used the bodies and property of the righteous in the Old Covenant to perform miracles of grace and healing. The miraculous mantle of the Prophet Elijah, who was assumed into heaven bodily without dying, parted the Jordan River when used by the Prophet Elisha to touch the water. The body of a dead man was raised to life again miraculously upon the touch of the Relics of the Prophet Elisha - II Kings 13.21. In the New Covenant, cloths and articles of clothing applied to the body of Saint Paul miraculously healed the sick and exorcised evil spirits from the possessed - Acts of the Apostles 19.11-12. The great Fathers of the golden conciliar age of the Church universally testify to the power and supernatural grace and influence of the Relics of the Saints. In the Western Church, both Saint Ambrose of Milan and Saint Augustine of Hippo deliver many homilies on the legitimacy of the cult of the Saints, and particularly on the importance of the Relics of Saint Gervasius and Saint Protasius. In the East, the Cappadocian Fathers dwell on the sanctity of the Relics of Saints frequently in their orations and sermons. The Relics of Saint Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107) were taken from Rome to Antioch and preserved as 'an invaluable treasure of the grace which dwelt in the martyr, a treasure left to the holy church.'

It should be vigorously emphasised as well that what is most important, to the Church of catholic history, about Relics is not some supposed inherent power or energy located in Relic itself as though such were separated from the person and life of the Saint - it is precisely from such an artificial and stilted separation of grace and person that abuses and errors arose in the medieval West - what is most important is that the Relics represent to our minds, hearts and souls the intercessions of the Saints, our heavenly brothers and sisters, before God for us. The Relics are, in this respect, very much like sacramentals: they stir up in us faith that we may more beneficially receive the grace of God. Orthodox Christians believe, not in any inherent power in a Relic like a talisman or charm, but in the prayers of the Saints in heaven for our sake. Relics bring us closer to the Saints and deepen our love, reverence and honour for those whose mortal remains continue to pledge the hope of our future resurrection.

We Anglicans tend to look at Relics from our deeply-conditioned western perspective, a viewpoint effected and affected by our common western ancestry of pre-reformation, reformation, and counter-reformation experiences. On the positive side, and on the other side of the historical divide, the Eastern Orthodox maintain a very natural, very earthy and organic reverence for the Relics of the Saints which has never been allowed entirely to fall into the sort of superstition and mistreatment prevalent in the pre-Reformation Latin Church. The Orthodox, and I think they are here indubitably correct, insist that the Relics of the Saints enforce the dogmas of the Incarnation and of human redemption and glorification, and, are therefore, as essential a component of orthodox Christology as are Icons. For them, as for the earliest Church, the two plainly go together.

I know someone who possesses Vatican-issued Relics of several Church Fathers, ossuary first-class Relics of Saints John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and the great Augustine of Hippo. His reliquary rests in a discreet place of prayer where, with Icons, they are used as aids to prayer and devotion. They are really no different from the cherished photographs of one's parents or beloved personal effects of family members long gone, physical reminders which stimulate the memory and reawaken the heart and soul. Icons and Relics, however, stimulate and reawaken on a far more profound and transformative level, the level of faith!

I hope this dreadfully long thesis is of some use to you, and I do hope and pray I have not frightened you senseless with my ramblings about a subject which confronts with horror most protestant sensibilities. Please keep asking these marvellous questions...


Ecgbert said...

I have a first-class relic of St Augustine of Hippo in a proper brass reliquary.

Irony of ironies, it seems modernist C of E Anglicans have in the last decade rediscovered, at Saint Alban's Shrine at least, that most anciently catholic and yet controverted practice of the enshrining of holy Relics. Now if only they could reappropriate to themselves the dogmatic tradition of the ancient Church

Sadly it's true that this isn't a return to Catholic belief. It's an example of Broad Church belief in nothing therefore everything: abandoning honest but wrong Protestantism regarding such as superstition for a condescending relativism or 'whatever floats your boat'.

J. Gordon Anderson said...

I am looking to get a relic too. There is a place in DC that has a supply from old retired priests, and they will give you one for a donation to the monastery.

Ecgbert said...

Fr Anderson, is that Icon & Book Service or somebody else?

Time was you could get them relatively easily from Rome (which is where mine of St Augustine came from 20 years ago) but eBay ruined that - unholy trafficking in real and fake relics like the worst abuses in the Middle Ages. Now the Relic Bank won't give them to people, only to churches and groups.

Ecgbert said...

As I was saying...

I've written to Serafin. Nice man.

J. Gordon Anderson said...

Young Fogey,




Anonymous said...

Where did you find it? Interesting read » »

Pope Francis on Anglican Orders

Amongst other highly controversial statements today, Pope Francis writes, 'On the other hand, to be rigorous, let us recognise that a cl...