If you were to enter the Orthodox cathedral located on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, you would notice people lighting candles before a small pavilion-like shrine on the right side of the church. On closer inspection, you would see people bending to kiss the glass covering the coffin of the archbishop of the cathedral who died in 1966. They are venerating the holy relics of St. John the Wonderworker, archbishop of San Francisco. Why this veneration of a dead body? Is this a superstitious or pagan practice that has crept into the Christian Church?
The honor and veneration of the remains of holy men and women can be found in both the Bible and in the practice of the early Christians. The most dramatic example is recorded in the Old Testament and tells the story of a miracle worked through contact with the bones of the Holy Prophet Elisha:
Now Elisha died, and they buried him. Then in the following year, the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, they beheld a lightly armed band of raiders, and cast the man into the tomb of Elisha. When the man touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood up on his feet. - 4 Kingdoms 13:21 (2 Kings)
The Old Testament book Wisdom of Sirach recalls this miracle through the bones of Elisha:
Elisha was covered by the whirlwind,
And Elisha was filled with his (Elijah's) spirit.
And in his days he trembled before no ruler, and no one oppressed him.
No word could overcome him,
And after death his body prophesied, as in his life he did wonders,
So even in death his works were amazing. - Wisdom of Sirach 48:12-14
In the New Testament, the early Christians found that there was miraculous power in handkerchiefs that had been in contact with the Apostles and simply even the Apostle's Peter shadow was enough to effect a healing:
Now God worked unusual miracles by the hands of Paul, so that even handkerchiefs or aprons were brought from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them
and the evil spirits went out of them.- Acts 19:12
And believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they brought the sick out into the streets and laid them on beds and couches, that at least the shadow of Peter passing by might fall on some of them. - Acts 5:15
The Early Christians
Like these experiences with the Holy Apostles, the earliest Christians gave special honor to the bodies of the holy martyrs, those men and women who gave their life for the Lord. One of the earliest Christian documents is called The Martyrdom of Polycarp dating from about the year 155 A.D. This early document tells the story of the martyrdom of the aged bishop St. Polycarp. It gives us insight into how the early Church honored the relics of its martyrs:
And so, afterwards, we took up his bones, more valuable than precious stones and finer than gold, and put them in a proper place. There, as far as we are able, the Lord will permit us to meet together in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom,both in memory of those who fought the fight and for the training and preparation of those who will fight.
- Martyrdom of Polycarp, chapter 18
Many of the early Christian Fathers wrote of this veneration of the relics of the martyrs including St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory Nazianzus. St. Gregory of Nyssa in his 4th century Sermon on the Blessed Theodore the Martyr said:
...drawing near to (the martyr's) tomb which we believe to be both a sanctification and blessing. If anyone takes dust from the martyr's resting place, it is a gift and a deserving treasure. Should a person have both the good fortune and permission to touch the relics, this experience is a highly valued prize and seems like a dream both to those who were cured and whose wish was fulfilled....one implores the martyr who intercedes on our behalf and is an attendant of God for imparting those favors and blessings which people seek.
Theology Of The Body
The veneration of the relics of saints is clearly a Christian practice attested to by both the witness of the Bible and the practices of the early Church. We honor the relics of saints because our Faith has always believed and taught that salvation does not simply involve our soul but our body participates in this salvation. Our body and soul are baptized, our body and soul receive the anointing in Chrismation, our body and soul receive the Lord in the Holy Eucharist. While at death our body and soul are separated, on the Last Day our bodies will be raised from the earth and rejoin our souls to receive either salvation or damnation. Our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven with a human body, therefore our bodies are sanctified and holy. The grace of the Holy Spirit which filled these saints while they were alive, continues to be present in their bodies which were and are temples of the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul explains in the Holy Bible:
Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you,
whom you have from God, and you are not your own? - 1 Corinthians 16
The Greek philosopher Plato did not believe that the body is a temple but rather that it is a prison or a cage for the soul. Many Americans, while they profess to believe in the Bible, act as if the philosophy of Plato were true. It is increasingly common for families to forgo funeral services for their loved ones and instead opt for direct cremation followed by a "memorial service" or "celebration of life" for the deceased. The body is unimportant and is not even necessary at a funeral anymore! It is quite common to hear statements at funerals such as: That's not Uncle Charlie in that casket, that's just his shell. Orthodox Christians honor and respect the human body both before and after death. That body of a mother that raised children or the body of a husband who worked to support a wife and children remains holy and honored. That body that received baptism and was fed with the Eucharist remains holy and a sacred temple even after death and is treated with honor and respect, brought into church and blessed with holy water and incense.
While many Americans, particularly Protestants, abhor the veneration of the relics of saints, our American culture readily embraces the veneration of the relics of secular saints. Museums in Washington D.C. display relics associated with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: blood stained gloves he carried on the night of his murder, pieces of his skull removed during the autopsy, the lead bullet which killed him. On your computer, Ebay will sell you a sacred relics: for sale recently were locks of Elvis' hair and even a porcelain crown from one of his teeth! I have seen brochures in funeral homes offering for sale necklaces with small crystal vials in which you can place some of the cremated remains of a loved one.
As miracles were performed through the relics of the Holy Prophet Elisha, miracles take place today at the shrines containing the relics of saints. Among the most popular and well known places for miraculous healings are the relics of St. Nectarios on the Greek Island of Aegina, the relics of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy, and here in America, the relics of St. John the Wonderworker in San Francisco.
American Orthodox Shrines/Reliquaries
St. Herman of Alaska
Holy Resurrection Church
St. John (Maximovitch) the Wonderworker
Holy Virgin Cathedral
St. Alexis Toth of Wilkes-Barre
St. Tikhon's Monastery
South Canaan, Pa.
St. Raphael of Brooklyn
- Father Edward Pehanich