A Interview with a Priest Concerning Relics and Their Fragmentation

The bringing of the relics of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker from Italy to Russia triggered much discussion about the veneration of holy relics and particularly about the propriety of their fragmentation. We gathered some most common questions of our readers and addressed them to Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin, a professor, a doctor of Church history and a lecturer of the canon law in Moscow Theological Academy and Moscow Theological Seminary.
– Fr. Vladislav, while the veneration of holy relics do not cause any questions in the Orthodox environment, the tradition of their fragmentation can seem strange to some people. Does it not contradict the Orthodox dogmatics?
– It does not contradict at all. In the Ancient Church, at the time of persecutions, there was a tradition of serving the Liturgy on the relics of martyrs. When the number of churches began to increase after the Milan edict of Emperor Constantine, it led to the tradition of the relics’ fragmentation, so that in every church people could serve the Liturgy on the relics. On the other hand, it also led to the fact that people began to use for that not only the relics of martyrs, but of other saints too. On its turn, it led to the appearance of antimensions, which have the signature of the bishop and consequently serve as a “document” which proves that a priest serves the Liturgy not by his own will, but by the will of the bishop. By the way, according to the canon law, a bishop is allowed to serve the Liturgy even without an antimensions, if it is necessary.
Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin
– Does the size of the relics’ particle, which you want to venerate, matter?
– The size itself does not matter. However, psychological perception of people can be different, when they see the whole relics or just a part of them. God acts it the way known to Him only. And this way is called God’s grace. According to the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Council, relics are honored on an equal basis with icons. The way God’s grace works through them is similar to the way it works through icons. When we appeal to the saints’ relics, it is more important that we believe in the power of God’s grace and the holiness of the saint. It means that our conscious faith matters.
– Why was it so that many saints asked their disciples and even ordered them to let the animals eat their bodies or just leave them in a forest? Why did they want that their burial sites remained unknown?
– The saints who asked for that did that because of their great humility. They considered themselves the worst people. Here we can observe a “typical” Christian paradox: the best of us, Christians, pay attention to their sins, but not to their merits. They were those “of whom the world was not worthy”, as Apostle Paul said.
 – Then why was it so that in most cases that order was not followed in Christianity?
– First of all, their disciples fulfilled the usual duty of burying their close people. It is natural even from the secular point of view. Secondly, in most cases the disciples and the followers of saints preserved their relics to glorify the Lord for granting them such a person and to show future generations the example of following Christ.
– In the life story of St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki, it is said that he was against the fragmentation of his relics. Once Leontius, an Illyrian nobleman, wanted to take a part of the saint’s relics to build a church in St. Demetrius’ honor in his homeland. Another time the ambassadors of Emperor Justinian, who wanted to get the relics of St. Demetrius to bless the newly built church in honor of St. Sophia, were stopped by the pillar of fire from which they heard the voice: “Stop and do not dare to do this”. What can we say about this case?
– In the life stories of saints, there are various episodes, but not always and not in all circumstances they can be enlightening for us, Christians. There can be found different miraculous things, which perhaps should serve as an example, but only in case we clearly understand the context of the events and the spiritual condition of the people who got involved in this or that situation. This is why something what we know from the life story of a particular saint cannot become a rule which must be observed. As for the will of St. Demetrius saying that he did not want his relics to be divided anymore, we should consider that this practice could turn into misuse: perhaps, there was a danger of destroying the relics at all. It became also a spiritual danger for Christians, freedom from which is recalled in the akathists to the saint.
– Are there any statements concerning relics in the canons of the Orthodox Church?
– There are. In the rule 94 of the Carthage council, devoted to the churches constructed without permission of the authorities, it is said that local bishops are prescribed to destroy such churches if there are no body or parts of the relics of a saint in them. Here we can see that the parts of relics are compared by their value to the bodies of martyrs. What is more, no one doubted that the particles of relics could be honored on the equal basis with the whole relics.
– What is the origin of the tradition of relics’ fragmentation?
– Perhaps the tradition appeared because of the fact that the relics of many saints were divided from the very beginning: the saints were executed, their remains were burnt –
only their bones remained. What is more, there was a need for holy relics for antimensions, which made this practice unavoidable, because it was just impossible to have the whole relics for each from the hundreds of thousands of churches.
Many relics, for example, the relics of St. Savva of Serbia, were destroyed. Some relics disappeared, while others were just stolen – especially after the 4th Crusade, the Ottoman conquests and so on. However, we cannot stop honoring a saint only because his relics have disappeared. In my opinion, destruction and disappearance of holy relics should be considered the consequence of our unworthy behavior.
We need to keep in mind one thing: quite often we can see only the outer side of what is going on in the Church and the world. The heavenly sense of the ongoing events is not always clear to us. Perhaps, we act very self-confidently when we try to understand the deep meaning and the sense of what is happening.
– You are talking about a prudent and Christian approach to the actions of saints: not in every situation a particular reaction of a saint, about which we read in his life story (or in a legend about him), should become a general rule.
– That is right. One must not turn a particular case into a general obligatory rule. Any action must be authorized by the Church to become a universal rule. We have no right to refer to certain episodes from the saints’ lives and base certain rules on their reactions, without paying attention to all the circumstances which led a holy (I stress!) person to this or that reaction. For example, we have no right to refer to the episode in which St. Nicholas slapped heretic Arius during the 1st Ecumenical Council and consider this episode a permission to beat anyone who does not agree with us, no matter whether they are people of the same faith or not. You will agree that it will be strange to make this a norm. There were so many cases when it seemed as if a slap was given because of “pious zeal”, but in fact those were just the examples of bad behavior, which had nothing in common with righteousness.
– What is the difference between Christian and pagan approach to the worship of relics?
– There is a wide range of different pagan beliefs. For example, the Romans had nothing similar to the worship of remains. In ancient Egypt people artificially made mummys and tried to connect that with their specific belief in immortality.
As for the difference between Christian and pagan worshipping, we need to remember the same rule which is applied to the worship of holy icons: we worship the foretype, which means we glorify God the Creator, Who gives His creation freedom and strength to follow Him. At the same time, we honor the feat of those people, who have managed to fully use their freedom, and ask them to help us in our prayer for strength we need to come to Christ and be true Christians.
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  1. Please bless Father Tsypin? Blessed Pentecost for you there in faraway Russia!
    We learned a great deal from this interview: my limited research on the History of Christs Shroud – stolen in the 4th Crusade- has made the connection of Antimins with the relic of Christ on His Shroud. We wonder if the Antimins on the Altar rises from the tradition of veneration of the Holy Shroud on Fridays in Constantinople. The connection also could be made in that the Epiclesis takes place on this “shroud” and the Resurrection took place in His Shroud “recorded” (as scientists can show) on the Linen cloth in “time lapse” photography? (Please refer to “ Scientific Evidence on the Shroud of Turin” and “the New Astonishing Evidence detected on the Shroud of Turin”.)
    Any information you may have from your wealth of research would be so welcome. What an honor it is for us in a “ faraway land” as Orthodox Christian’s to benefit from your extensive history.
    Asking humbly for your holy blessing and prayer in this desert we inhabit following our Savior Jesus Christ,
    Matushka Irene Matta MTh
    Orthodox Christian mission

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