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Monday, November 28, 2022

What makes religious relics – such as fragments of the ‘true cross’ and hair of saints – sacred to Christians

What makes religious relics - such as fragments of the 'true cross' and hair of saints - sacred to Christians

A Russian missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, sank in April 2022 after heavy damage. Kremlin officials said the ammunition on board had exploded, while Ukrainian officials claimed they had attacked Moscow. Several media reports state that the ship may contain a relic of the “true cross”, a fragment of the actual wooden cross on which Christians believe Jesus suffered and died.

The possibility of the remains of the sunken ship cannot be ruled out. A collector is said to have donated the relic to the Russian Navy in 2020, which planned to keep it in a chapel on the Moscow ship. However, it is not clear whether the relic was on board the ship in its chapel when the ship went into battle. But widespread interest in the possibility of this ancient relic being on board points to its importance to many Christians.

As an expert in medieval Christian worship and worship, I know that relic worship has a long history in Christian devotional practice.

salute to martyrs

In the first three centuries of Christianity, Christians, whose religion was outlawed, prayed over the bodies of martyrs who had been executed for refusing to renounce their new faith.

After Christianity was legalized by the Roman Empire in the early 4th century, small buildings sometimes called pilgrimage churches around the tomb of a martyr. At times, martyr’s bodies were exhumed by local bishops and reburied in a special tomb under the floor of a large church or basilica within the city itself.

Prior to this practice, the bodies of the dead were placed in tombs and catacombs built outside the city walls to separate them from the “city” of the living. But Christians believed in the power of martyrs and, later, other saintly persons, to intercede with God on their behalf. Saints were respected and their relics and images were worshipped, but they were not worshiped or worshiped as gods.

cross of jesus

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, Jerusalem became an important center for Christians who wanted to make religious trips to visit the places where Jesus and his apostles lived and preached. The word Tirtha, which means journey, originated at that time.

During this time, what was believed to be a piece of the “True Cross” was brought back to Europe – believed to have been by Saint Helena, the emperor’s mother – and broken into smaller pieces.

Another section remained in Jerusalem and was worshiped there, until in the early seventh century a Persian emperor, a Zoroastrian, conquered the city and removed the relics amidst the spoils of war. Many years later, the Persians were conquered by the Christian emperor Heraclius himself, who returned the relics to Jerusalem. It remained there even after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem later that century.

pilgrimage to see the relics

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, so did the practice of worshiping saints.

The demand for a saint “body” grew, and so the relics of famous or local saints were divided into pieces, which included hair clippings, or sometimes entire body parts. These “relics” – from a Latin word meaning “something left behind” – were often kept in special containers or display cases, called relics.

These were usually particularly elaborate, made of precious metals and adorned with ornaments as a reflection of the special reverence for these elements, which touched the body of Jesus Christ.

The more famous the relic, the more pilgrims would make their way to the church or monastery where it was kept, and the more the clergy could earn through offerings made at the shrine.

Pilgrims take part in a pilgrimage with the ancient relics of Saint Gregory in Sorlada, northern Spain, in 2017.
Associated Press Photo/Alvaro Barrientos

By the turn of the millennium, the number of pilgrims from Europe to Jerusalem increased, but tensions between Muslim rulers and Christian leaders increased. There was also friction between various Christian nobles and kings. Because of this, from the end of the 11th century to the end of the 13th century, Christian political and religious leaders led several major wars – the Crusades – to gain control of the Holy Land from their Muslim rulers.

One result was an increase in the number of “relics” of Jesus, Mary and other New Testament figures that were brought back to Europe and circulated as authentic.

Some of these included bones or pieces of hair from the apostles or other saints, while others included pieces of cloth from their robes. Most revered of all were those objects that allegedly touched the body of Jesus himself, especially those associated with his suffering and death, such as the spikes he crucified.

power of relics

By the end of medieval times, there were a great number of stories linking the relics with miracles, such as unexpected healing or protection from the dangers of the weather.

Many ordinary Christians regarded the relics as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot, owned or revered for personal protection. This was also true for the remains of the True Cross. For example, in Venice, many miraculous stories of the True Cross, especially of saving ships from storms, were widely circulated.

During the Reformation of the 16th century, many European Protestant writers objected to the Catholic worship of relics. Most people felt that this was a practice not found in the Bible; Others felt that many believers were worshiping the saints as if they were divine, and that many devotional practices involving relics involved fraud and superstition, not actual prayer. Protestant theologian John Calvin suggested that if all the alleged pieces of the “True Cross” were gathered together, they would fill an entire ship.

Even some Catholic scholars of this period, notably Erasmus of Rotterdam, criticized the fraudulent manipulation of believers for cash offerings when visiting shrines, and questioned the authenticity of many relics.

In 1563, the Catholic Council of Trent responded to all these criticisms by clarifying the Catholic view of the relics in an official decree. In the document, the assembled bishops insisted that the devotional activities associated with the relics should in no way be bordered by superstition, that the “dirty earnings” – the buying and selling of relics – be “expired” and that the worship ceremony “reveal and Don’t grow drunk.”

what makes a relic more precious

Until recently, Catholic tradition divided relics into several classes, depending on their relationship to Christ or the saints. A first-class relic was a fragment of a saint’s actual body, such as a tooth, hair clipping, or bone fragment.

Fragments of objects included in the Passion of Christ were also included in this category, as traditional theology teaches that Jesus Christ rose from the dead after three days in the tomb and physically ascended to heaven 40 days later.

Whether prized as a lucky charm or revered as a powerful reminder of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, this Russian relic of the true cross has taken its place in the conflicting history of these valuable religious objects: the peaceful message of Jesus. Often lost in the violent chaos of war.

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