The veneration of relics is a practice deeply rooted in Orthodox Christianity , which may appear unfamiliar or even questionable to many Protestants. However, understanding the theological and historical foundations behind this practice can shed light on its significance within the Orthodox tradition. Orthodox Christians do not worship relics, they only venerate them.
Differentiating Veneration and Worship is the first step.
Worship is the act of offering reverence, adoration, and devotion to God alone. It is the acknowledgment of God's supreme authority, glory, and worthiness of praise. Worship is reserved exclusively for God, and Orthodox Christians believe that worship should be directed solely towards the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Veneration, on the other hand, is an act of respect and honor recognizing the sanctity and holiness of saints and their relics. It involves practices such as kissing their relics or icons, bowing, or lighting candles, similar to paying respects to influential historical figures, visiting the graves or embracing photos of loved ones.
Historical and Scriptural Basis:
- Relic veneration has roots in early Christianity, as evidenced by historical records and the writings of Church Fathers. Accounts from the fourth-century Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea and the Pilgrimage of Egeria describe the veneration of saints and relics during that time. Church Fathers such as St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. Ambrose of Milan spoke of the importance of venerating relics, emphasizing their spiritual power and the miracles associated with them (see quotes below). At the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787 A.D., bishops from East and West required that all churches should contain relics.
- Biblical Support: There are several passages that provide a foundation for the Orthodox belief. Hebrews 12:1 refers to a "great cloud of witnesses," indicating the presence and intercessory role of saints in the spiritual journey of believers. Revelation 5:8 portrays heavenly elders offering the prayers of the saints to God, indicating their awareness of our prayers and intercession on our behalf. James 5:16 acknowledges the effectiveness of the prayers of the righteous, aligning with the Orthodox belief in the intercessory power of the saints.
- Archeological Sites: The Catacombs of Rome, such as the Catacomb of Callixtus and the Catacomb of Priscilla, contain numerous inscriptions and artwork depicting the veneration of saints and martyrs. The discovery of the tomb of St. Peter beneath St. Peter's Basilica in Rome further affirms the early Christian practice of venerating the relics of apostles and saints.
- Pilgrimage Sites: The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, built over the sites of Jesus' Crucifixion, Burial, and Resurrection, has been a major pilgrimage site since the 4th century. It houses the Stone of Anointing, believed to be the place where Jesus' body was prepared for burial. The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai in Egypt, founded in the 6th century, became a pilgrimage destination due to the presence of the relics of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
- Relics of Apostles and Martyrs: In the early Church Christians believed that the bodies of the martyrs, who had willingly sacrificed their lives for their faith, were sanctified and possessed a special spiritual power. The relics of martyrs were often placed in churches, and Christians would gather to venerate them and seek their intercession. The relics of the Apostles, particularly Peter and Paul, were highly venerated in the early Church. For example, the bones of St. Peter were buried beneath the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome, and early Christians would visit and venerate this sacred site. The Relics of St. Polycarp a disciple of the Apostle John were venerated by the early Christian community. His bones were said to emit a pleasant fragrance and were preserved as a treasured relic.
- The True Cross: The veneration of the True Cross, believed to be the actual cross upon which Jesus was crucified, has ancient roots. In the 4th century, St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, traveled to Jerusalem and discovered the True Cross. Fragments of the True Cross were distributed to various churches, and the veneration of these relics became widespread in the early Christian Church.
Orthodox Christians believe in the "communion of saints" — the spiritual unity and fellowship shared by all the faithful, both living and departed. It recognizes that the saints, as members of the Church, continue to participate in the life of the Church and have a relationship with God in heaven. In Orthodox Divine Liturgy both the angels and the saints are called to join with us in worship as one church, the one on each and the one in heaven.
The Church is known in Scripture as the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is one Body. The Church is not divided by those who have fallen asleep in Christ and those of us who remain behind .Our success or failure in spiritual life is not private business, but the concern of a great cloud of witnesses that is made op of the saints who are living in heaven. They support us with their prayers. Many Orthodox services contain the phrase, “Lord, Jesus Christ, through the prayers of our holy fathers have mercy on us and save us.” It is calling on a reality that abides. We are not alone. The great cloud of witnesses stands with us and in prayer.
Orthodox Christians invoke the prayers and intercessions of the saints, seeking their assistance, guidance, and support in their spiritual journey. Orthodox Christians do not view the saints as rivaling Christ's role as the sole Mediator between God and humanity. The saints intercede for the living out of love and compassion, directing the prayers and needs of the faithful to God. The intercessory power of the saints is seen as an extension of Christ's mediation, reflecting the unity and love within the body of Christ.
This belief is based on biblical foundations, including passages such as Hebrews 12:1, which speaks of a "great cloud of witnesses" surrounding the faithful. Also Revelation 5:8 portrays the elders in heaven offering the prayers of the saints to God. It suggests that the saints in heaven are aware of our prayers and intercede on our behalf. James 5:16 encourages believers to pray for one another, acknowledging the effectiveness of the prayers of righteous individuals. Orthodox Christians believe that the saints, who have attained righteousness through their union with Christ, have great intercessory power.
Throughout history, numerous miracles and testimonies have been associated with the veneration and prayer with relics. The Kursk Root Icon, and various relics of saints like St. Nektarios of Aegina and St. Spyridon, to name a few, have been connected to healings, deliverance, and other spiritual interventions. While miracles should not be the sole basis for faith, these accounts provide testimony to the profound impact of relic veneration in the lives of Orthodox Christians.
In Scripture we see the bones of Elisha bring a dead man back to life (4 Kings 13:21 septuagint or 2 Kings 13) In the Acts of the Apostles 19:12 we see where a handkerchief touching St. Paul provided healing for people who were sick. Also, the woman with a flow of blood was healed by touching Christ’s garment. The garment became an avenue of grace. Relics also can become a conduit for Grace, the work of the Holy Spirit.
Protestant Concerns and Respectful Engagement:
Many Protestants have reservations about relic veneration. From the sixteenth century onwards they denounced the physical intermediaries between the human and the divine—priests, saints, relics, shrines. In his “Treatise on Relics,” John Calvin argued that most of the artifacts were forgeries and that the veneration of relics “is a defilement and an impurity which should never be suffered in the church.” There were several cases where Kings would make up relics and sell them for profitable gain so it was difficult to know which were valid. It was due to these historical abuses that took place in the Roman Church that led in the Reformation a new doctrine of Sola Scriptura, which means to ascertain the truth of Christian truths you must find it recorded in Scripture. To this day Orthodox Christians will be confronted with the questions from visitors, “where do you find this in Scripture?” For those who believe in Scripture Alone they see this practice as diverting attention from the true Physician of souls and distracts true seekers from looking to Christ alone as our all sufficient Saviour.
Engaging in respectful dialogue is essential for understanding one another's perspectives. Addressing concerns about idolatry, it is crucial to reiterate that veneration is not worship, but a means of honoring the saints and seeking their intercession. Emphasizing the unique mediatorial role of Christ, while recognizing the saints as powerful intercessors, can help alleviate concerns about the practice.
The veneration of relics holds a significant place in Orthodox Christianity, rooted in both historical tradition and theological understanding. While it may appear foreign to many Protestants, a closer examination reveals its deep connection to the communion of saints, the intercessory power of the righteous, and the historical practices of early Christianity. By understanding the distinction between veneration and worship, acknowledging the biblical and historical foundations, and engaging in respectful dialogue, Protestants can gain a greater appreciation for the Orthodox perspective on relic veneration. This understanding of the Orthodox is in part why they say they have the wholeness of the faith.
It is important to remember that the veneration of relics is not meant to replace or diminish the central role of Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity. Rather, it is seen as a means to honor the saints, who exemplify the transformative power of God's grace and serve as inspirations for believers. By seeking their intercession and venerating their relics, Orthodox Christians find solace, encouragement, and a sense of connection to the larger body of Christ throughout history.
While differences in practices and beliefs will inevitably exist between Protestantism and Orthodoxy, fostering understanding and respect can contribute to greater unity among Christians. By delving into the theological foundations and historical context of practices such as relic veneration, we can cultivate an environment of mutual appreciation and dialogue, recognizing the richness and diversity of Christian traditions.
In conclusion, the veneration of relics in Orthodox Christianity is a practice that holds deep spiritual significance, rooted in a theological framework that emphasizes the communion of saints, intercessory power, and the historical traditions of the early Church. Engaging in respectful conversation and seeking to understand the perspectives of others can bridge the gaps and promote a more comprehensive understanding of one another's faith traditions. Through mutual respect and dialogue, Christians from different traditions can grow in their understanding of one another and work towards greater unity in Christ.
Quotes from Church Fathers
St. John Chrysostom (349-407 AD):
"The martyrs have great power in their intercession with God; and if anyone makes a request through them, they obtain what they ask." (Homily on St. Lucian, 7.2)
Reference: Homilies on St. Lucian. Available in "Saint John Chrysostom: Discourses against Judaizing Christians" (translated by Paul W. Harkins). St. John Chrysostom (c. 349–407): "Do you know what it means to touch the relics? It is to touch the dust, the mortal remains of the dead. But this dust has greater power than heaven and earth, for the Lord grants His grace through these relics" (Homily on St. Babylas).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD):
"Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition." (Catechetical Lecture 23.9)
Reference: Catechetical Lectures. Available in "Cyril of Jerusalem: The Early Church Fathers" (translated by Edwin Hamilton Gifford).
St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397 AD):
"We are celebrating the martyr's birthday with fitting honors, because Christ's martyrs are indeed the flower of His churches. And this is the testimony of the Catholic faith, that these gifts of God have been bestowed upon His saints." (On the Death of Satyrus, 43.60)
Reference: Letters and Selected Works. Available in "St. Ambrose: Letters 1-91" (translated by Mary Melchior Beyenka).
St. Basil the Great (c. 329–379): "The bones of the martyrs work countless miracles. Everywhere, in countless numbers, their relics raise up churches in their honor" (On the Holy Spirit, Chapter 29).
St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335–395): "The martyrs' relics are not lifeless, but on account of the indwelling grace, are living and life-giving, sanctifying those who come near them with faith" (On the Martyr St. Theodore).
These quotes illustrate the Church Fathers' recognition of the power and significance of relics in the spiritual life of the Orthodox faithful. Relics are seen as conduits of God's grace, capable of working miracles and sanctifying those who venerate them with faith.