Sacramentals & Relics:
Definition of Terms:
The early Church regarded sacramentals and relics as sacred objects that hold spiritual significance. Sacramentals are sacred signs that prepare people to receive God’s grace. Examples include holy water, blessed medals, and scapulars. Relics, on the other hand, are physical objects associated with saints or holy figures, such as bone fragments, clothing, or personal belongings. Christians were encouraged to venerate and respect these objects while recognizing that their true value lies in their connection to God’s grace and the example of the saints.
The practice of relic veneration is tied to the belief in the Communion of Saints, which acknowledges the unity of the Church, both living and departed. The veneration of relics reinforces a sense of spiritual connectedness and continuity between the Church Militant (believers on Earth) and the Church Triumphant (saints in Heaven). The use of sacramentals and relics are not considered essential for salvation, but are aids in spiritual life and a way to deepen one’s faith and devotion.
Relic veneration has roots in both the Old and New Testaments. While the terms may not be found explicitly in Scripture, the underlying theological concepts are threaded throughout both the Old and New Testaments;
- Holy Water: In Numbers 5:17, the priest is instructed to mix holy water with dust from the tabernacle floor to create a “bitter water” to test the faithfulness of a wife suspected of adultery. This use of holy water demonstrates its significance in purifying and consecrating.
- Incense: In Exodus 30:34-38, God instructs Moses to create a special blend of incense for use in the tabernacle. This incense was a sacred sign used during religious ceremonies, symbolizing prayers rising up to God. In Numbers 16:46-48, when a plague strikes the Israelites due to their disobedience, Aaron uses incense as an intercession, standing between the living and the dead to stop the plague. This demonstrates the use of incense as a means of seeking God’s mercy and protection.
- Anointing Oil: In Exodus 30:22-33, God gives Moses instructions for creating a sacred anointing oil used to consecrate priests and holy objects. This anointing oil signifies the setting apart of people and things for God’s service. In 1 Samuel 10:1, and 1 Samuel 16:13, the anointing of Saul and David as kings with oil by the prophet Samuel. This anointing symbolizes their consecration to their respective roles and God’s favor upon them.
- Inanimate Objects: In Numbers 21:8-9, when the Israelites are plagued by fiery serpents, God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole. Anyone who looks at the bronze serpent would be healed. This event shows the use of a physical object as a means of divine healing.
- In 2 Kings 2:14-15, when the prophet Elijah is taken up to heaven, his mantle (cloak) falls from him. Elisha, his successor, picks it up and uses it to part the waters of the Jordan River. This demonstrates the belief in the spiritual significance and power associated with relics of holy figures.
- In 2 Kings 13:21, a dead man’s body comes into contact with the bones of Elisha the prophet, and he is miraculously revived. This event signifies the divine power that can be associated with blessed objects, even after the death of a holy person.
- In Exodus 25:10-22, the Ark of the Covenant is a sacred container that holds the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s staff. It is considered one of the most significant relics in the Old Testament, symbolizing the presence of God and His covenant with His people.
- Genesis 50:25, Exodus 13:19: Joseph’s bones are carried out of Egypt by the Israelites, as he had requested. In 1 Kings 13:31: The Prophet’s bones are interred in the tomb of another prophet. These actions demonstrate the respect and veneration for the relics of a servant of God.
The New Testament:
Incense: The use of incense has a basis in the Old Testament, but the Book of Revelation (Revelation 5:8, 8:3-4) describes incense as a symbol of prayers being offered to God in the heavenly realm, and this symbolism has been extended to Christian liturgical practices.
Holy Water: The concept of holy water is not explicitly mentioned in the New Testament, but there are references to water being used in rituals of purification and baptism (John 3:5, Acts 8:36-38). The symbolism of water for cleansing and spiritual rebirth has led to the use of holy water, especially in the context of blessings, sacraments, and the dedication of individuals to God.
- After Christ’s death, rather than leaving his body on the cross, to be taken down and disposed of by the Romans (as was the customary practice), Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for Christ’s body (Mark 15:43, John 19:38) and then donated his own, newly hewn tomb as Christ’s resting place (Matt. 27:60). Nicodemus came and donated over a hundred pounds of spices to wrap inside Jesus’ grave clothes (John 19:39) and the women went to reverently visit the tomb (Matt. 28:1) and further anoint Christ’s body with spices even though it had already been sealed inside the tomb (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1). The veneration and honor shown to the bodies of martyrs and Saints reflects the honor shown to Christ’s own body after his death. Because Saints are members of Christ’s Body and formerly Temples of the Holy Spirit, it is also directly honoring Christ and the grace He worked through his earthly Saints.
- Acts 19:11-12: “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured, and the evil spirits left them.” This passage suggests that objects associated with a holy person, like Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons, were believed to carry healing power or divine influence.
- Acts 5:15-16: “People brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.” This passage portrays the belief that proximity to holy individuals like Peter could bring about healing or spiritual benefits.
- Mark 6:56: “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak. And as many as touched it were made well.” This verse shows the belief in the healing power associated with touching the clothing of Jesus, indicating the significance attributed to physical contact with holy objects.
- Acts 19:13-14: “Some itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?‘” This passage highlights the importance of a genuine connection with holy individuals like Paul, suggesting that it is not enough to merely use their name or objects associated with them.
The Early Church:
The practice of relic veneration has been an integral part of Christian tradition for centuries. The writings of the Church Fathers as well as the early martyrdom accounts demonstrate the early Christian belief in the spiritual significance and transformative power associated with relics and sacred objects. Many devout individuals have attributed miracles, healings, and spiritual graces to their interactions with relics. While the Church does not endorse every claim of miracles, it acknowledges that God’s grace can work through various means, including the veneration of relics.
The overall presence of relics in early Christian practices is well-documented, not only by the Church Fathers, but also through various types of archaeological findings. Archaeologists have discovered various types of reliquaries, which are containers designed to protect and display relics. Martyrdom accounts often emphasized the reverence and care given to the bodies or remains of the martyrs. Many early Christian martyrdom accounts mention the locations where the martyrdom took place, such as catacombs, which became pilgrimage sites for early Christians. Some accounts also describe the construction of shrines, altars, or basilicas in honor of the martyrs.
- “The Martyrdom of Polycarp” (c. 155 AD) recounts the martyrdom of Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John. After his death, the Christians collected his remains as precious relics, affirming the belief that they held spiritual significance and were a means of grace.
- “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity” (c. 203 AD) describes the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, two early Christian martyrs.
- “The Acts of Andrew” (late 2nd century AD) narrates the missionary activities of the apostle Andrew. It mentions the collection of his relics by his disciples and their eventual enshrinement in Patras, Greece.
- “The Passion of Saint Agnes“, a young Roman girl who faced persecution for her Christian faith in the early 4th century.
- “The Acts of the Christian Martyrs” (Acta Martyrum) is a collection of accounts and records of early Christian martyrs, compiled over time.
- “The Passion of Saint Agatha“, a young woman who faced torture and martyrdom in Sicily during the early 3rd century.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian“, a Christian soldier in the Roman army, during the late 3rd century.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint Lucy”, a young Christian woman martyred in Syracuse during the early 4th century.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint Justin and His Companions” describes the martyrdom of Justin Martyr, a philosopher and early Christian apologist, along with several of his companions in Rome during the 2nd century.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint Cyprian” recounts the martyrdom of Cyprian of Carthage during the 3rd century.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence“, a deacon in Rome during the mid-3rd century, who was famously executed by being roasted on a gridiron.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint Agnes of Rome”, a young Roman girl who faced martyrdom in the 4th century.
- “The Martyrdom of Saint George“, a soldier who became one of the most revered martyrs in Christianity, describes his refusal to renounce his faith despite intense torture during the early 4th century.
- Catacomb of Callixtus (Rome) contains the “Crypt of the Popes”, where several early popes were buried. It’s a significant site showing the veneration of early Christian leaders and the use of catacombs for such burials.
- Catacomb of Priscilla (Rome) contains numerous frescoes and inscriptions depicting scenes of martyrdom and the veneration of saints, providing insights into early Christian devotion to relics.
- Catacomb of Domitilla (Rome) has an area known as the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman,” featuring frescoes that depict scenes of the Good Shepherd and the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Basilicas and Pilgrimage Sites:
- St. John Lateran Basilica (Rome): Founded in 324, it is the oldest and highest-ranking of the four major basilicas in Rome, and is traditionally known as the “Mother of All Churches.” The Sancta Sanctorum chapel within the basilica houses many important relics and was a significant site for pilgrims.
- Basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls (Rome): This basilica is believed to house the relics of St. Lawrence. The basilica is the shrine of the tomb of Lawrence, one of the first seven deacons of Rome who was martyred in 258.
- Mont Saint-Michel (Normandy, France): Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe (Latin: tumba). According to a legend, the archangel Michael appeared in 708 to Aubert of Avranches, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. This abbey was built on a rocky island and became a pilgrimage destination, dedicated to the Archangel Michael.
- St. Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City): The high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica contains a reliquary believed to hold the remains of St. Peter, making it one of the most significant examples of the integration of relics into church architecture.
- Santiago de Compostela Cathedral (Spain): This cathedral became a major pilgrimage destination due to its association with the apostle St. James. Pilgrims traveled from all over Europe to visit his relics, and the cathedral’s design reflects the significance of pilgrimage in the Christian tradition.
- The Sainte-Chapelle (Paris, France), a Gothic chapel built to house important relics, including the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross, acquired by King Louis IX.
Occasions of Superstition:
Throughout history, there have been occasions where individuals have viewed or used relics and sacramentals in superstitious ways. The early Church was careful, however, to distinguish between authentic religious practices and superstitious behavior. It emphasized that true veneration of relics is grounded in faith and guided by proper theological understanding and not based on superstitious beliefs. Relics serve as tangible reminders of the faith, martyrdom, and virtuous example of individuals who lived virtuous lives and were instruments of God’s grace. The believers’ intention is not to attribute inherent power to the relics or sacramentals themselves but to acknowledge the grace of God and the spiritual significance they represent.
The veneration of relics and the use of sacramentals are supported by theological principles within Christianity. They are consistent with the belief in the Communion of Saints, the intercessory role of saints, and the materiality of the Incarnation. Superstition, on the other hand, lacks theological grounding and often involves irrational beliefs or practices not rooted in authentic religious teachings.
In authentic religious practices like relic veneration and sacramentals, believers understand that God is the ultimate source of grace and power. The use of relics or sacramentals is not seen as guaranteeing specific outcomes, but as means through which believers can express their faith and openness to God’s grace. Superstition, in contrast, is often focused on manipulating supernatural forces or outcomes through unrelated rituals or objects without genuine connection to divine sources.
“The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.”
“The Lord said to Moses: Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (an equal part of each), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it into powder, and put part of it before the covenant in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy. When you make incense according to this composition, you shall not make it for yourselves; it shall be regarded by you as holy to the Lord.”
“Moses said to Aaron, ‘Take your censer, put fire on it from the altar and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them. For wrath has gone out from the Lord; the plague has begun.’ So Aaron took it as Moses had ordered, and ran into the middle of the assembly, where the plague had already begun among the people. He put on the incense, and made atonement for the people.”
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Take the finest spices: of liquid myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet-smelling cinnamon half as much, that is, two hundred fifty, and two hundred fifty of aromatic cane, and five hundred of cassia—measured by the sanctuary shekel—and a hin of olive oil; and you shall make of these a sacred anointing oil blended as by the perfumer; it shall be a holy anointing oil.”
1 Samuel 16:13
“Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”
2 Kings 2:14-15
“He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, ‘Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?’ When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, ‘The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.'”
2 Kings 13:21
“As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.”
“They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around.”
“Then Joseph took an oath from the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.'”
“Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.'”
1 Kings 13:31
“After he had buried him, he said to his sons, ‘When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones.'”
“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them.”
“So that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mats, in order that Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he came by. A great number of people would also gather from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those tormented by unclean spirits, and they were all cured.”
“And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
Church Father Quotes:
Ignatius of Antioch:
“I am writing to all the churches to let it be known that I will gladly die for God if only you do not stand in my way. I plead with you: show me no untimely kindness. Let me be food for the wild beasts, for they are my way to God. I am God’s wheat and shall be ground by their teeth so that I may become Christ’s pure bread.” -Letter to the Romans
Polycarp of Smyrna
“We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.” –The Martyrdom of Polycarp
Ephrem the Syrian:
“Blessed is the man who loves your holy names. He is a well-spring of piety in the house of your Church. He is a storehouse of sanctity in the treasury of your altars. He is a fountain of purity in the shrine of your relics.” -Hymns on Virginity
Basil the Great:
“If we had to prepare some rare and precious ointment, we would certainly take care to have the most precious substances blended in it, and if we had the bodies of the saints as a relic, we would surround them with the most precious substances.” -Homily on the Forty Martyrs
Gregory of Nyssa:
“In the case of other deaths, the body is divided and the corpse becomes corrupt, but in the case of martyrs, none of these things happens.” -On the Soul and the Resurrection
“For though we may say that what was mortal of her has been deposited in the tomb, yet the grace of her life and conversation could not suffer dissolution. Death is only a change, a dissolution of our union, a banishment from our native soil, a departure from home.” -On the Death of Macrina
“When, therefore, you see anyone delivered up to the devil, or insulted, or deprived of his goods, or suffer anything terrible, do not be scandalized. … But consider, when you see this, how many crowns are woven, how many triumphs are made. For as one told me that a physician said, ‘When I see a poor man bitten by a mad dog, immediately I expect to see his flesh healthy.’” -Homilies on the Gospel of John
“These sacred bones, the receptacle of such a soul, I desire to take up and carry away. And why so? Do you think me mad? By no means, only inebriated with divine love.” -Homilies on St. Ignatius
Ambrose of Milan:
“The Church celebrates the memory of martyrs with religious ceremony in order to arouse us to imitate them, sanctifying the altars where their bodies repose, that they may become to us an object of desire for our salvation.” -Exposition of the Christian Faith
“As I do not wish anything which takes place here in your absence to escape the knowledge of your holiness [my sister], you must know that we have found some bodies of holy martyrs. . . . All the bones were perfect. . . . Briefly we arranged the whole in order, and as evening was now coming on, transferred them to the basilica of Fausta. . . . On the following morning we translated the relics to the basilica called Ambrosian. During the translation a blind man was healed. . .. He declares that when he touched the hem of the robe of the martyrs, wherewith the sacred relics were covered, his sight was restored” (Letters 22:1–2, 17 [A.D. 388]).
Jerome of Stridon:
“We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the Creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore Him whose martyrs they are.” -Letter to Riparius
Augustine of Hippo:
“We do not venerate the relics of the martyrs for themselves, but because of the One to whom they witness.” -Sermons on the Saints
“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by his sacraments or by the prayers or relics of his saints . . . The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there . . . [and when people] had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream and discovered by him” (City of God 22:8 [A.D. 419]).
“If, then, the bodies of the dead were of no benefit to the living, the righteous would never have cared for their burial, as they would have been careless about it, whether they were torn by beasts or birds, or whether the bodies were simply scattered here and there and decomposed. But they take the greatest care of them, and those whom they have loved with a holy love, they love even in their lifeless bodies.” -Sermons on the Psalms
Cyril of Alexandria:
“This perfume was poured out by Mary the sister of Lazarus. Not one of those who were present failed to be struck with astonishment. … She has been praised by the Lord, and blessed, and anointed by Him with the dignity of the priesthood, having been counted worthy of the divine anointing, for she poured the precious perfume over His body.” -On the Incarnation
“We by no means consider the holy martyrs to be gods, nor are we wont to bow down before them adoringly, but only relatively and reverentially [Greek: ou latreutikos alla schetikos kai timetikos].” – “Adv. Julian.”, vi, P.G., LXXVI, 812
Adolph con Harnack, Lutheran theologian & historian;
“No Church doctor of repute restricted it (the veneration of relics). All of them rather, even the Cappadocians, countenanced it. The numerous miracles which were wrought by bones and relics seemed to confirm their worship. The Church therefore would not give up the practice, although a violent attack was made upon it by a few cultured heathens and besides by the Manichaeans” (Harnack, History of Dogma, tr., IV, 313).