There are many things in Orthodoxy that astound Protestant Christians. So much of what we do during worship remains preserved through Holy Tradition, which Protestants have rejected since the beginning of the Reformation. One of the most beautiful of these practices is the veneration of holy relics. In this post, we explain why the Orthodox venerate relics in their churches. Along the way, we also address questions many skeptics might have about the practice.
What are relics?
Relics are the earthly remains of saints. They consist of bodily remains (bone), articles of clothing/vestments or other possessions, instruments used in the torture or death of a saint, and items of Christ’s Passion (the True Cross, for example). The Orthodox also consider as relics objects that may have come into contact with a relic at some point (like an icon).
Why do the Orthodox venerate relics?
Before we get into the why here, first allow us to clarify something. We do not worship the relics. We venerate them. The Orthodox take great care to distinguish veneration (Greek, doulia) from worship (Greek, latreia). In English, the two words have definitions people often treat as synonymous (meaning the same thing). However, in Greek, the official liturgical language of the Early Church, the two words have entirely separate meanings. Where worship means completely giving over oneself to service to God, veneration means treating something with reverence, respect, and honor. We afford both worship and veneration to God, but the only One we worship is God.
The Orthodox practice of venerating relics reflects our beliefs of salvation. In Orthodoxy, we understand salvation as theosis, or deification, becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). This is the primary reason the Incarnation happened, and why Christ voluntarily endured crucifixion and death. He did this so we could become by Grace what God is by nature. Our bodies are not prisons for our souls, but rather are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:15, 19; Eph. 2:19-22). Thus, God’s grace affects not only the spirit, but also the physical body. This is especially the case for saints, who actively participate in God’s divine nature (“saint” comes from the Greek hagiosis, which means, “the holy ones”).
We venerate the bodily relics of saints for several reasons. First, veneration of relics like the True Cross or the garment of a saint affirm the reality of their existence. Second, the act of veneration makes clear that all Christians, even those who have departed this life, remain in communion with God and with one another. We venerate to show respect. To honor these saints as examples for how we should live our own lives to please God and achieve theosis. We also venerate their relics in the hopes that we may somehow participate in the Grace they received. In other words, to have a share in their holiness.
Where’s the Scriptural evidence for this?
Of all the questions skeptics ask, this one almost always comes up. Especially among our Protestant brethren, who believe in a doctrine called Sola Scriptura, or Scripture Alone.
In Orthodox Tradition, we adhere to the Old Testament as the basis for many aspects of our liturgical worship, including the veneration of relics. The book of Exodus provides us with the best example: the Ark of the Covenant. For the ancient Israelites, the Ark was the center of all formal worship and was kept in the Holy of Holies. All pious Jews held the Ark in great reverence. Why? Because the Glory of the Lord rested upon it, and within it, Aaron placed relics from the Exodus out of Egypt: a jar of manna (Exodus 16:33); the Decalogue or Ten Commandments (cf. Exodus 25:16; Deut. 10:1-5); and Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17:10).
In modern Orthodox churches, our altars are consecrated with relics embedded into them, much like the Ark of the Covenant.
But ascribing miracles to relics isn’t biblical…
Many who reject the practice of venerating relics often compare it to sorcery, on the grounds that certain relics are associated with miracles. However, we must again make a critical distinction. Sorcery implies the harnessing of a supernatural, demonic source and compelling it to act a particular way. Relics do not compel God, nor do they have any innate power to cause miracles. When relics perform miracles, this is simply because God wills it.
As far as this not being biblical, it very much is! All genuine miracles come from God, not physical objects. Perhaps our greatest example of genuine miracles comes from the God-Man Jesus Christ. Crowds of people sought to touch Jesus because “power went out from Him” (Luke 6:18-19). Some didn’t even need to touch Jesus directly to receive healing, like the woman with an issue of blood (Luke 8:40-48) and the people of Gennesaret (Matthew 14:35-36), who touched the hem of His garment. Were these people guilty of sorcery? Of course not! Jesus explicitly confirmed their faith; His garment became an avenue of Grace (God’s power) into them. As Christ says, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me” (Luke 8:46).
In Scripture, miracles of healing also happen with Elijah’s mantle (2 Kings 2:13-14), the shadow of Peter (Acts 5:15-16), handkerchiefs and aprons (Acts 19:11-12), and the bones of the Prophet Elisha (2 Kings 13:20-21).
How do you know the relic is real?
Throughout its history, the Orthodox Church has tried to remain vigilant in exposing fake relics. Many Church Fathers denounced those who preyed upon others with fake relics and took advantage of believers’ piety and faith. For example, Augustine of Hippo often used miracles from relics as an apologetic tool to bring pagans to Christianity; but at the same time, he condemned those who traded in counterfeit relics and masqueraded as monks. Further, the fifth Council of Carthage (389 A.D.) ordered bishops to remove altars raised over unauthenticated relics.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to prove – in a scientific sense – the authenticity of most relics. We can only establish the relative likelihood of its authenticity, and examine the relic’s history closely to establish it. Fake relics are not so much a problem in the Eastern Church as they are in Western Christianity. While we don’t know the precise reason for this, it may have something to do with the prominent role of icons in Orthodox spirituality.
Holy relics have a special place in the Orthodox spiritual life. We venerate them, but do not worship them. In venerating them, we pay honor and respect to the saint connected to the relic, and we deepen our understanding of the communion of the Body of Christ.
Have you ever been in the presence of holy relics before? If so, what was it like for you?