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The Cult of Martyrs and Their Relics
By Father Peter Leigh

Before the continuation of the consecration service with its deposition of the holy relics and the consecration and washing of the altar,.our discussion now leads us to the development of the martyr cult and the importance of their relics.

The catacombs ringed the city of Rome like a crown and were concentrated on highways (such as the Appian Way) located outside the city walls, as was the custom and law. It was the frequent custom of Christians to visit the tombs of their martyred heroes on the anniversary of their deaths and to hold a memorial sacrifice at their tombs. It was even a pagan custom to honor deceased heroes, thus all the more reason for the Christian honor of the martyrs. These underground mausoleums were no larger than a living room and because of the great numbers of Christians in Rome (during Diocletian's persecution, Rome housed some 80,000 Christians, the great majority who survived the slaughter), the occasional worship in these burial cells simply became impractical. The bodies (relics) were thus transferred to large Churches above ground which were built to house them. After this event, the cult of the martyrs exploded as a main occupation of Christians. Of course, not every martyr received a cultus (many tombs were unknown) however the local congregations felt it their duty and right to bury and honor their dead. Cyprian and Dionysius strongly defended this right. The early Christians called these courageous men and women (happy) or (revered, honored, or holy). They formed the company of the happy and blessed ones, "beatus" and "beatissimus." Their honor gave the infant Church strength and courage. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann states: In the cult of martyrs, the Church laid the foundation for the glorification of saints; each of them is a witness, and their blood is a seed that promisesnew shoots. For the Church, persecution was the best pledge of victory. This cult was naturally based in Scripture as a desire for the supplicatory prayers of the saints (Revelation 8), and a belief that the saints worked miracles on earth (2 Kings 13:21 and Acts 19:12). As Hapgood states: The relics of the saints which remain incorruptable on earth assure us of the special prayers for us, and the coming of the Kingdom of Glory.4

Thus the Christians worshipped Jesus (but loved) the martyrs and their relics. The term relic (reliquiae = ashes) is a classical Latin term of the "remains of dead bodies" and is applied to the bodies of martyrs, and may be the whole body or a small part of it (tantillae religuiae). Even their clothing was valued, as St. John Chrysostom relates: How great is the power of the saints. For the homage of Christians is directed not only to their words and bodies, but also to their vestments.

These sainted bodies were known to have mystic powers or grace, along with their burial spots. Like the Eucharist, even if the body was divided, so also the grace remained whole. He who touched these bones received a share of sanctification. The martyrs were thus considered the glory of the Churches. St. Cyprian writes: Oh how blessed is our Church, which through God's mercy shines with such honor, having lately been made illustrious by the glorious blood of the martyrs. The Church is now decked in purple by the blood of martyrs, and both the lily and the rose adorn it.
It is quite obvious that the Christian use of relics is traced to affection, which makes the survivors cling to the mortal remains of a relative or to visit the place of burial, along with an instinctive reverence for any notable person. This reverence led to the reverence not only of the martyrs' bodies, but also their blood. Prudentius tells how the witnesses of the martyrdom of St. Vincent (c.304) dipped their linen vests in his blood, so that it might be a safeguard to their homes for generations. An earlier example of the preservation of relics is found in the book on "Relation of the Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch:" After he was eaten by the beasts, only his larger bones remained. These were carried to Antioch and there placed in a napkin as an inestimable treasure left to the Church by the grace which was in the martyr.

Possession of relics became a continuation of fellowship with the deceased. The miraculous affects of these relics were attributed by Sts. Hilary, Ambrose and Augustine who followed all the great teachers and Fathers in attributing to relics the rapid development of the martyr cult. In the Roman Church this development df the relic cult received approbation by the Council of Trent which taught: The holy bodies of holy martyrs, and of others now living in Christ, are to be venerated by the faithful; through which bodies, many benefits are bestowed by God on man. It is known that in Egypt, the dead bodies of heroes and saints were not buried, but retained for veneration in homes and Churches. Relic distribution was common in Egypt, as John Chrysostom refers to it in his "Laudations et Martirium." Basil also speaks of how the Church at Sebaste gave relics of its 40 martyrs to other districts. The general principle is that wherever there is evidence of a primitive Christian cult there is found a tomb of an historical martyr.

The translation of relics first occurred in the East, an early example being the translation of Sts. Andrew, Luke and Timothy to Constantinople. These translations still are practiced today by the recent translations of St. Aureliana from Rome to Cincinnati in 1870, and of St. Vibiana to Los Angeles.

Despite the early attitude of veneration, there is no satisfactory evidence of the general practice of the cult before the third century. St. Basil (379), St. Gregory Nazianzus (390), St. Ambrose (397) and John Chrysostom all provide evidence that the practice of venerating the martyrs was well established even before their time. By the time of Constantine the practice of dividing relics was widely practiced, and the religious authorities were unanimous in commending this devotion. (Especially St. Gregory of Nyssa who wrote of it in his third address on the Holy Martyrs".)

St. Ambrose in the West was the first to popularize the custom of placing relics in Churches for their consecration. In a letter to his sister, written in 386, Ambrose explained that he was to consecrate a basilica in Milan and insisted that relics be placed within the building. The relics of Sts. Gervase and Protase were later placed in the altar after the people had spent two days venerating them and keeping vigil prior to their deposition. Ambrose later refused the consecration of Churches without relics, and it is known that Pope Severinus (640) collected them in great numbers for the border Churches of the Danube.

The spread of relics from Rome was slow at first, and Pope Theodosius I (375-395) outlawed the practice. However, his law was ineffective and the West quickly joined the East in frequent relic translations. It was quickly admitted that a martyr could have many tombs. Churches with relics became common, and eventually it was impossible to think of a Church without relics in its altar. There were also abuses, and Vanentinian III spoke of bishops and clergy who were guilty of robbing the martyrs' graves to obtain their relics. Sometimes, individual bishops went a little overboard, as when Boniface IV (608-615) brought hundreds of relics to Rome for the consecration of St. Mary of the Martyrs. Rome itself became a center of these relics when in 761 AD Pope Paul I ordered the wholesale transfer of all the martyrs in the catacombs into the crypts of Roman Churches.

The universal approval of the relic/martyr cult was enacted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 787 AD. The document states: If any church has been consecrated without the sacred relics of martyrs, relics are now to be placed therein with the customary prayers. A bishop who henceforth consecrates a church without Holy Relics is to be deposed as a transgressor of ecclesiastical tradition. The Synod in Mainz in 888 AD (Canon 5) ratified the placernent of relics given at Nicea, and demanded that relics should hereafter be deposited in every altar.

`The ceremonies surrounding the translation of relics from their original grave to the new Church were identical in the East and West. The act consisted in a procession with the relics to a new Church. Once placed in the altar (which in effect became the martyr's tomb), the bishop would bless water mixed with mortar. This mortar (or any adhesive agent such as wax) would be used to "seal up" the cavity in the altar, sealing it with the mortar and capped with a square of marble or other material. The celebration of the Liturgy followed the interment of the relics. Often, early altars were constructed so that it was possible for the faithful to see and touch the relics. A square opening at the base or central front of the altar was constructed (fenostrella) covered with a lattice of metal or marble (transenna). At times small double doors (regiolea) were placed at the opening. The Pontifical of Egbert describes the ceremony of deposition in this brief quote: The day before the Church is consecrated, relics must be provided by the bishop, and put in such a place that they may be honored all night with hymns, Psalms, and lights, until they are removed from there and taken to the place where they are to be placed.

The reasons why the relics are placed into altars is simple, to retain reverence for Christian ancestors (i.e., to retain communication with the martyrs), to obtain their intercessory protection, and to highlight the martyrs' sacrifice with Christ's own sacrifice and in connection with the unbloody sacrifice enacted upon Christian altars. Of course, the provision of relics cannot be regarded as a "sine qua non" of Christian worship as this worship was conducted without relics, however it is the tradition of the Church that was "built upon the martyrs" and is thus essential to the very nature of the Church.

The central focal point of any Church consecration is the consecration of the altar. It is the most important part of the Church, as the very symbol of Christ "par excellence." We must also realize that in the Byzantine tradition the deposition of the relics is NOT the essential and most important part of the consecration ceremony, but the consecration of the altar by washing and anointing is the central part, coming from a much more ancient tradition. Likewise, the aspersion and anointing of the Church walls is not essential, but only an extension of what was done to the altar table. The relics in the altar simply bear witness to the special presence of God in that locality. Their presence reminds the Orthodox Christian that when he is in Church he is in a sacred place sprinkled with the blood of the saints, "that they also may have followship with us" (1 John 1:3).

Disposition of Holy Relics and Altar Consecration

A detailed outline of the disposition of the holy relics and the consecration of the altar is given below, after which the ritual commentary is resumed.

Disposition of holy relics and altar consecration.

A. The deposition and burial.

1) Anointing of relics with Chrism.

2) Singing of Eternal Memory.

3) Prayer of deposition.

4) Burial of relics with wax-mastic.

5) Psalm 145 and Psalm 23.

B. Altar consecration.

1) Dressing of bishop with savanon.

2) Prayer of altar consecration.

3) Special Litany.

4) Blessing of warm water.

5) Psalm 84 (during altar washing).

6) Anointing of altar with rose water and wine.

7) Psalm 51 (as altar is wiped with Antimension)

8) Anointing of altar with Holy Chrism.

9) Psalm 133 (during which altar is wiped with Antimension).

10) Fastening of four icons on corners of altar.

Disposition of Holy Relics - Commentary

Returning once again to the consecration ritual, we discover that after the processions the bishop enters the sanctuary and places the diskos (with the relics) upon the altar.

As St. Simeon of Thessalonika writes: And they (relics) are placed upon the altar for they died together with Christ and they are privileged to stand at the Divine Throne of His Glory.

The bishop then uncovers the diskos and places the three relics into a gold or silver box (pyx) specially purchased for them. Before closing the lid, the bishop pours over these relics a portion of Holy Chrism, symbolizing the unity of the martyrs with Christ. These relics are anointed with Chrism "because the martyrs are united with Christ with the true oil fulfilled by a fragrant blessing in abundance".

Before the enclosure of the relics into the altar, the bishop places into the cavity prepared for them a list of all the names of the founders of the new Church, both living and dead. As this list, plus the relics, are lowered into the altar, the bishop intones the "Memory Eternal" hymn, usually sung at funerals. The Bishop then recites the following prayer:

O Lord our God, who has bestowed upon the holy martyrs which suffered for Thy sake this glory also, that their relics should be sown in all the earth in Thy holy Churches, and should bring forth fruits of healing: Do Thou, the same Master, who art the giver of all good things, through the intercessions of Saints (names) Thou has graciously permitted to be placed in this venerable altar, enable us without condemnation to offer unto Thee thereon the bloodless sacrifice.

The whole congregation joins in singing this hymn, which accompanied by the burial of relics is quite moving. One gets the feeling of immense reverence and joy at witnessing the burial of the saints, who like us are both tangible and human. I may also add that the relics used by the bishop are usually obtained from the Patriarch. Each bishop is given by the Primate of the Archdiocese a certain number of relics for local consecrations. These relics may be two or more in number. The Greek Archdiocese insists on using at least two martyrs for Church consecrations.

This particular prayer not only shows the necessity of relics, but it also identifies these relics to the congregation. (An example of common relics in American altars are those of: St. Herman of Alaska, St. George the Great Martyr, and Sts. Theonas, Triphon and Parthenias, to name a few.) After the prayer, the bishop pours into the altar cavity (usually a square opening approximately four inches on all sides and at least three or four inches in depth ) a mixture called "wax-mastic" which is a hot liquid substance composed of beeswax, mastic (a type of gum adhesive found in Greece), myrrh, aloe, incense, resin and labdanum. As the mixture quickly cools, it is mixed with marble powder or mortar; the whole substance becomes as hard as rock, and permanently seals the relic box(es) into the altar. The theology of the Church indicates that the mastic represents the sweet smelling spices whereby Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed the body of Our Lord when they laid him in the tomb. St. Simeon of Thessalonika teaches that these ingredients are used to remind the faithful that the altar itself becomes the tomb of Christ, and as such represents his body. Mastic is used as a glue that symbolizes the uniting (or connecting of) the union of Christ's love for us by his death and burial, and as an eternal bond between Christ, his martyrs and the local congregation who must "take up their Cross" and follow him. Cabasilas also relates that once the relics are embedded in the altar: ... the house is a house of prayer, and the table is prepared for the sacrifice and belongs to it, and is properly an altar.

During the pouring of the wax-mastic, along with the covering of the cavity with the marble slab (square), Psalm 145 is recited by the reader ("I will magnify Thee 0 God, my King"). This Psalm is a triumphant hymn of praise. An acrostic, the Psalm praises all God's works and his saints, thus the reason for its presence at this point in the service. God is the King (v. 1) who is ever blessed because of his greatness in creation and his mighty acts (v. 4). As the Lord is merciful to his people, "all thy works" give thanks and "all thy saints shall bless thee" (v. 10). God's Kingdom is everlasting (v. 13) and "satisfies the desire of every living thing" (v. 16). This Kingdom is made present in a concrete way to the local community through the consecration ceremonies.

As the bishop cleans the hardening wax-mastic fromthe altar slab with a knife, the reader recites Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd ...." Cabasilas says that this Psalm is used because "it refers to baptism and Holy Chrism, the cup, ones the "Memory Eternal" hymn, usually sung at funerals. The Bishop then recites the following prayer:

patron saints