A few weeks ago we were blessed to have my good friend Fr. Seraphim and his family join us at Holy Resurrection. Fr. Seraphim and I met in seminary where we worshiped in the chapel together, learned about our faith through our classes, played on the seminarian basketball team (yes, the seminary has a basketball team in the Orthodox church league in Boston) and enjoyed building a beautiful relationship.
As we were just about to head out for church Sunday morning Fr. Seraphim casually asked if he could bring his relics for the community to venerate. I was taken aback a bit since typically relics, of saints or holy sites, are kept in larger churches or monasteries. Rarely have I heard of a person having one relic, let alone a collection. Of course my response to Fr. Seraphim was an emphatic "YES, please bring them!"
For many of our faithful this was probably the first time they had seen and venerated a relic. So what is a relic of our church? For anyone who has stepped foot into an Orthodox Church it won't be long until you see people venerating icons, the cross of Christ, the Gospel book, the right hand of the priest, etc. Is this some sort of odd superstition, or is there more to it?
The incarnation of our Lord, the literal fact that Christ physically had a body, has been a central reality to Christianity from the beginning to the present day. The seven councils of the Church have always affirmed the reality that, because of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, both the physical and spiritual world can participate in the grace and transformation of God. Christ's physical body sits at the right hand of God the Father and will forever. If this is something we truly believe, shouldn't this be reflected in how we worship and live as Christians?
St. Justin Popovich says the following: "Holiness completely envelopes the human person—the entire soul and body and all that enters into the mystical composition of the human body. The holiness of the Saints does not hold forth only in their souls, but it necessarily extends to their bodies; so it is that both the body and the soul of a saint are sanctified. Thus we, in piously venerating the Saints, also venerate the entire person, in this manner not separating the holy soul from the holy body. Our pious veneration of the Saints' relics is a natural part of our pious respect for and prayerful entreaty to the Saints."
The new reality, the new life, that Jesus Christ brought with His incarnation was the opening for our entire personhood, body and soul, to be healed and united to our Savior through His salvific works. This work is continued down to the present day through the work of the Holy Spirit within the Church. The entire goal is for us to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:12-13). The grace of God being present in people, bodily and in their clothing, is demonstrated again and again throughout the Old and New Testament (See 2 Kings 13:21, 2 Kings 2:8, Acts 5:15, Acts 19:11, Luke 8:44).
And all of this takes place and will continue to take place through the Divine and human Body of the Church, which is truly the God-Man Christ in the total fullness of His Divine and Human Person, the fullness "that fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23). Through its Divine and human existence in the Church, the human body, as matter, as substance, is sanctified by the Holy Spirit and in this way participates in the life of the Trinity. Matter thus attains its transcendent, divine meaning and goal, its eternal blessedness and its immortal joy in the God-Man. (St. Justin Popovich)
In the saints of the Church, we see an example for our lives, we see the potential we all have in Christ through His Church and the activity of the Holy Spirit. Holy relics are an ongoing witness to this reality that we can truly experience and have our Lord living in us. The love He pours out freely on us is His invitation for us to respond with unrelenting love back towards Him. Not only do relics encourage us on our journey towards Christ but they allow the saints and God's grace to be present in time and space. Sometimes our faith can feel very abstract and theoretical. Or we can become exhausted by our ascetical efforts and ongoing struggle to live holy lives. It is in these moments that we need encouragement to press on, and relics give us strength to carry on with our vocation to come into communion and union with Christ for all eternity - be it a small fragment of a saint's bone or garment, a holy object or the incorrupt ear of St. John Chrysostom.
By unceasing enactment of the ascetic efforts set forth in the Gospels, Saints gradually fill themselves with the Holy Spirit, so that their sacred bodies, according to the word of the holy Apostle, become temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19; 3:17), Christ dwelling by faith in their hearts (Ephesians 3:17) and by fruitful love also fulfilling the commandments of God the Father. Establishing themselves in the Holy Spirit through grace-bestowing ascetic labors, the Saints participate in the life of the Trinity, becoming sons of the Holy Trinity, temples of the Living God (II Corinthians 6:16); their whole lives thus flow from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. By piously venerating the holy relics of the Saints, the Church reveres them as temples of the Holy Spirit, temples of the Living God, in which God dwells by Grace even after the earthly death of the Saints. And by His most wise and good Will, God creates miracles in and through these relics. Moreover, the miracles which derive from the holy relics witness also to the fact that their pious veneration by the people is pleasing to God. (St. Justin Popovich)
It was pure joy for me to see the awe, gratitude and love as our community approached the holy relics that Fr. Seraphim shared. Despite it being foreign to many, everyone appeared at peace and with hearts open to the blessing being freely offered. It was beautiful to see people venerating the relics as if they were kissing pictures of a loved one that had passed from this life into the next. Veneration of relics is common practice in Greece and other Orthodox countries. In reality, the Saints (the Church Triumphant) are always with us, interceding for us, guiding and inspiriting us (the Church Militant). I encourage you to read the lives of the saints, to venerate their icons and relics, to learn from them and to emulate them. They will lead us closer to Christ.
Glory to God for all things!
PS: If you want to hear Fr. Seraphim's sermon on the Myrrh Bearing Women, you can find it HERE.