THE EARLY CHRISTIANS ON SACRED RELICS

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A relic (hand) of St. Francis Xavier

The practice of venerating the sacred remains of the holy men and women of Christian faith has originated since the earliest times of Christianity, i.e. from the apistolic times (cf. Matthew 9:20-22; Acts 5:14-16; Acts 19:11-12). The Holy Catholic Church has indeed preserved this Holy Tradition with the belief that God could undoubtedly work miracles through the relics of His servants as what has been recorded in 2 Kings 13:20-21. Hence, the historical practice is further recorded to the times of Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (AD 50-117), who was bound and conveyed to Rome to be devoured by wild beasts in the Colosseum. In chapter 6 of the Martyrdom of Ignatius, it reads: “For only the harder portions of his holy remains were left, which were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by the grace which was in the martyr.” Below are other testimonies from the early witnesses of true Christian faith:

Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna

“Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps. (Martyrdom of Polycarp [ch. 18, AD 69-155)]

Tertullian, theologian

“The brazen serpent and the golden cherubim were not violations of the Second Commandment. Their meaning. Likewise, when forbidding the similitude to be made of all things which are in heaven, and in earth, and in the waters, He declared also the reasons, as being prohibitory of all material exhibition of a latent idolatry. For He adds: “Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them.” The form, however, of the brazen serpent which the Lord afterwards commanded Moses to make, afforded no pretext for idolatry, but was meant for the cure of those who were plagued with the fiery serpents? I say nothing of what was figured by this cure. Thus, too, the golden Cherubim and Seraphim were purely an ornament in the figured fashion of the ark; adapted to ornamentation for reasons totally remote from all condition of idolatry, on account of which the making a likeness is prohibited; and they are evidently not at variance with this law of prohibition, because they are not found in that form of similitude, in reference to which the prohibition is given.” (Against Marcion [Book 2, ch. 22, AD 160-240])

Peter, patriarch of Alexandria

“In the meanwhile a spirited body of senators of those who are engaged in the public transport service, seeing what had happened, for they were near the sea, prepared a boat, and suddenly seizing upon the sacred relics, they placed them in it, and scaling the Pharos from behind, by a quarter which has the name of Leucado, they came to the church of the most blessed mother of God, and Ever-Virgin Mary, which, as we began to say, he had constructed in the western quarter, in a suburb, for a cemetery of the martyrs.” (Genuine Acts of Peter [AD 260-311])

Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria

“But each of those who received the sheepskin of the blessed Anthony and the garment worn by him guards it as a precious treasure. For even to look on them is as it were to behold Anthony; and he who is clothed in them seems with joy to bear his admonitions.” (Life of St Anthony [par 92, AD 296-373])

Basil, bishop of Caesarea Mazaca

“If I am able to find any relics of martyrs, I pray that I may take part in your earnest endeavour.” (Letter 49 [AD 329-379])

“If you send the relics of the martyrs home you will do well; as you write that the persecution there is, even now, causing martyrs to the Lord.” (Letter 155 [AD 329-379])

“He took up the relics with all becoming reverence, and has aided the brethren in their preservation. These relics do you receive with a joy equivalent to the distress with which their custodians have parted with them and sent them to you.” (Letter 197 [par 2, AD 329-379])

Jerome, Roman presbyter

“She hurried to the martyrs’ shrines unnoticed. Such visits gave her pleasure, and the more so because she was never recognized.” (Letter 24 [par 4, AD 347-420 ad])

“Everywhere we venerate the tombs of the martyrs; we apply their holy ashes to our eyes; we even touch them, if we may, with our lips.” (Letter 46 [par 8, AD347-420])

“We shall see the fountain in which the eunuch was immersed by Philip. We shall make a pilgrimage to Samaria, and side by side venerate the ashes of John the Baptist, of Elisha, and of Obadiah.” (Letter 46 [par 13, AD 347-420])

“Are we, therefore guilty of sacrilege when we enter the basilicas of the Apostles? Was the Emperor Constantius I guilty of sacrilege when he transferred the sacred relics of Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to Constantinople?” (Against the Vigilantius [par 5, AD 347-420])

“You tell me that Vigilantius (whose very name Wakeful is a contradiction: he ought rather to be described as Sleepy) has again opened his fetid lips and is pouring forth a torrent of filthy venom upon the relics of the holy martyrs; and that he calls us who cherish them ashmongers and idolaters who pay homage to dead men’s bones. Unhappy wretch to be wept over by all Christian men … We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever. Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are. We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord.” (Letter 109 [par 1, AD 347-420])

John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople

“And yet who is there whom this fire does not touch? Which of the statues that stand in the Church?” (Homily 10 on Ephesians [ch 4:5, AD 347-407])

“For not the bodies only, but the very sepulchres of the saints have been filled with spiritual grace. For if in the case of Elisha this happened, and a corpse when it touched the sepulchre, burst the bands of death and returned to life again, much rather now, when grace is more abundant, when the energy of the spirit is greater, is it possible that one touching a sepulchre, with faith, should win great power; thence on this account God allowed us the remains of the saints, wishing to lead by them us to the same emulation, and to afford us a kind of haven, and a secure consolation for the evils which are ever overtaking us.” (Homily on St Ignatius [par 5, AD 347-407])

Egeria, a pilgrim to the Holy Land

“Veneration of the Cross. Then a chair is placed for the bishop in Golgotha behind the Cross, which is now standing; the bishop duly takes his seat in the chair, and a table covered with a linen cloth is placed before him; the deacons stand round the table, and a silver-gilt casket is brought in which is the holy wood of the Cross. The casket is opened and (the wood) is taken out, and both the wood of the Cross and the title are placed upon the table.” (Discription of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem XXXVII [AD 348-418])

John Cassian, Roman monk and theologian

“In this district there lived for a long while monks of the most perfect life and holiness, who were suddenly destroyed by an incursion of Saracen robbers: whose bodies we knew were seized upon with the greatest veneration both by the Bishops of the neighbourhood and by the whole populace of Arabia, and deposited among the relics of the martyrs, so that swarms of people from two towns met, and made terrible war upon each other, and in their struggle actually came to blows for the possession of the holy spoil, while they strove among themselves with pious zeal as to which of them had the better claim to bury them and keep their relics.” (Conference 6 [ch 1, AD 360-435])

Augustine, bishop of Hippo

“How much stronger is their claim on you, who reside in the same country in this earth in which these ladies, for the love of Christ, renounced the distinctions of this world I also ask you to condescend to receive with the same love with which I have offered it my official salutation, and to remember me in your prayers. These ladies carry with them relics of the most blessed and glorious martyr Stephen: your Holiness knows how to give due honour to these, as we have done.” (Letter 212 [AD 354-430])

“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints; but they are not so brilliant and conspicuous as to cause them to be published with such glory as accompanied the former miracles.” (City of God Book 22 [ch 8, AD 354-430])

Salminius Hermias Sozomenus, historian

“He (the monk Antony the great) was earnest in conduct, grave in discourse, and with a good memory and accurate attainment in Sacred Writ. He was so beloved by God, that even now many afflicted and possessed people are healed at his tomb.” (Ecclesial History [Book 3, ch. 14, AD 375-477])

Ecumenical Council of Ephesus

“Theodosius, the humble Christian, to the holy and Ecumenical Synod: I confess and I agree to (suntiqemai) and I receive and I salute and I venerate in the first place the spotless image of our Lord Jesus Christ, our true God, and the holy image of her who bore him without seed, the holy Mother of God, and her help and protection and intercessions each day and night as a sinner to my aid I call for, since she has confidence with Christ our God, as he was born of her. Likewise also I receive and venerate the images of the holy and most laudable Apostles, prophets, and martyrs and the fathers and cultivators of the desert. Not indeed as gods (God forbid!) do I ask all these with my whole heart to pray for me to God, that he may grant me through their intercessions to find mercy at his hands at the day of judgment, for in this I am but showing forth more clearly the affection and love of my soul which I have borne them from the first. Likewise also I venerate and honour and salute the reliques of the Saints as of those who fought for Christ and who have received grace from him for the healing of diseases and the curing of sicknesses and the casting out of devils, as the Christian Church has received from the holy Apostles and Fathers even down to us to-day.” (Extracts from Session 1 [AD 431])

Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome

“We now send you as the benediction of the blessed apostle Peter a small cross, wherein are inserted benefits from his chains, which for a time bound his neck: but may they loose yours from sins for ever.” (Book 3 Letter 33 [AD 540-604])

“The Serenity of your Piety, conspicuous for religious zeal and love of holiness, has charged me with your commands to send to you the head of Saint Paul, or some other part of his body, for the church which is being built in honour of the same Saint Paul in the palace. And, being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favour towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin. For the bodies of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul glitter with so great miracles and terrors in their churches that one cannot even go to pray there without great fear. In short, when my predecessor, of blessed memory, was desirous of changing the silver which was over the most sacred body of the blessed apostle Peter, though at a distance of almost fifteen feet from the same body, a sign of no small dreadfulness appeared to him.” (Book 4 Letter 30 [AD 540-604])

John of Damascus, Syrian monk

“A tradition has come down to us that Angaros, King of Edessa, was drawn vehemently to divine love by hearing of our Lord,* and that he sent envoys to ask for His likeness. If this were refused, they were ordered to have a likeness painted. Then He, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, is said to have taken a strip of cloth, and pressing it to His face, to have left His likeness upon the cloth, which it retains to this day.” (Apologia Against those who Decry Holy Images [AD 676-749])

Bede the Venerable, English monk

“The brother having long laboured under this malady, when no human means availed to save his eye, but rather, it grew daily worse, on a sudden, through the grace of the mercy of God, it came to pass that he was cured by the relics of the holy father, Cuthbert. For when the brethren found his body uncorrupted, after having been many years buried, they took some part of the hair, to give, as relics, to friends who asked for them, or to show, in testimony of the miracle.” (Ecclesiastical History of England [Book 4 ch 32, AD 672-735])

Ecumenical Council of Trent

“… that the holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living with Christ,-which bodies were the living members of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Ghost, and which are by Him to be raised unto eternal life, and to be glorified,–are to be venerated by the faithful; through which (bodies) many benefits are bestowed by God on men; so that they who affirm that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of saints … ” (Extract from Session 25, AD 1563).

CAN THERE STILL BE MORE HISTORICAL PROOFS NEEDED TO AUTHENTICATE THE APOSTOLICITY OF THIS TRADITION?

However, the Holy Catholic Church, through the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Lateran (AD 1215-1216), strongly warned the faithful of the sanctity of the relics by decreeing: “The Christian religion is frequently disparaged because certain people put saints’ relics up for sale and display them indiscriminately. In order that it may not be disparaged in the future, we ordain by this present decree that henceforth ancient relics shall not be displayed outside a reliquary or be put up for sale. As for newly discovered relics, let no one presume to venerate them publicly unless they have previously been approved by the authority of the Roman Pontiff.”

Finally, from the very words of the same great Council of Trent, be reminded then that “great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety.”

OMNES SANCTI ET SANCTAE DEI, ORATE PRO NOBIS.

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