From the earliest times following the generation of Jesus & His Apostles, many, many Christians have regarded the dead in Christ as having become very much alive and exalted to positions of authority over the Church and the World, having supplanted the former principalities & powers of Ephesians 6:12. Such doctrines are a tacit witness to the position of global, historic Christianity that some form of the First Resurrection occurred around the time of the disappearrance of the Apostles. even though the Resurrection of the Rest of the Dead yet remained future, at the end of the Millennium in which they saw themselves living. Around the time of the Council of Nicea in 325AD, such beliefs came into full bloom throughout global, historic Christianity and are strongly held throughout the bulk of Christianity even today: (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) It is partly what is meant in the Apostles' Creed, "I believe ... in the communion of the Saints." This accords well with the 56AD predictions of Christ's persecuted Apostle Paul and with what Christ's exiled Apostle John had foreseen around 63AD in the predictive vision of the book of Revelation. It was all expected to shortly come to pass after the New Testament was written.
1 Corinthians 6:2-4 ~written around 56AD by Christ's persecuted Apostle Paul to the Church at Corinth
Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters? 3 Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?
Revelation 20:4-6 ~foreseen around 63AD in the predictive vision to Christ's exiled Apostle John about "those things shortly to come to pass," Rev 1:1 & Rev 4:1
4 And I foresaw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I foresaw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
The Communion of the Saints
"The Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Church as well as the Anglican Church and the Assyrian Church of the East point to this doctrine in support of their practice of asking the intercession of the saints in heaven, whose prayers (cf. Revelation 5:8) are seen as helping their fellow Christians on earth. These same churches refer to this doctrine in support of the practice of praying for the dead."
HISTORY of the CHRISTIAN CHURCH by Philip Schaff
PUBLIC WORSHIP AND RELIGIOUS CUSTOMS AND CEREMONIES.
§ 84. The Worship of Martyrs and Saints.
The worship of saints proceeded originally, without doubt, from a pure and truly Christian source, to wit: a very deep and lively sense of the communion of saints, which extends over death and the grave, and embraces even the blessed in heaven. It was closely connected with love to Christ, and with gratitude for everything great and good which he has done through his instruments for the welfare of posterity. The church fulfilled a simple and natural duty of gratitude, when, in the consciousness of unbroken fellowship with the church triumphant, she honored the memory of the martyrs and confessors, who had offered their life for their faith, and had achieved victory for it over all its enemies. She performed a duty of fidelity to her own children, when she held up for admiration and imitation the noble virtues and services of their fathers. She honored and glorified Christ Himself when she surrounded Him with an innumerable company of followers, contemplated the reflection of His glory in them, and sang to His praise in the Ambrosian Te Deum:
"The glorious company of the Apostles praise thee;
The goodly fellowship of the Prophets praise thee;
The noble army of Martyrs praise thee;
The holy church throughout all the world doth acknowledge thee;
The Father, of an infinite majesty;
Thine adorable, true, and only Son;
Also the Holy Ghost, the Comforter.
Thou art the King of glory, O Christ;
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man, thou didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb;816
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers."
In the first three centuries the veneration of the martyrs in general restricted itself to the thankful remembrance of their virtues and the celebration of the day of their death as the day of their heavenly birth.817 This celebration usually took place at their graves. So the church of Smyrna annually commemorated its bishop Polycarp, and valued his bones more than gold and gems, though with the express distinction: "Christ we worship as the Son of God; the martyrs we love and honor as disciples and successors of the Lord, on account of their insurpassable love to their King and Master, as also, we wish to be their companions and fellow disciples."818 Here we find this veneration as yet in its innocent simplicity.
But in the Nicene age it advanced to a formal invocation of the saints as our patrons (patroni) and intercessors (intercessores, mediatores) before the throne of grace, and degenerated into a form of refined polytheism and idolatry. The saints came into the place of the demigods, Penates and Lares, the patrons of the domestic hearth and of the country. As once temples and altars to the heroes, so now churches and chapels819 came to be built over the graves of the martyrs, and consecrated to their names (or more precisely to God through them). People laid in them, as they used to do in the temple of Aesculapius, the sick that they might be healed, and hung in them, as in the temples of the gods, sacred gifts of silver and gold. Their graves were, as Chrysostom says, more splendidly adorned and more frequently visited than the palaces of kings. Banquets were held there in their honor, which recall the heathen sacrificial feasts for the welfare of the manes. Their relics were preserved with scrupulous care, and believed to possess miraculous virtue. Earlier, it was the custom to pray for the martyrs (as if they were not yet perfect) and to thank God for their fellowship and their pious example. Now such intercessions for them were considered unbecoming, and their intercession was invoked for the living.820
This invocation of the dead was accompanied with the presumption that they take the deepest interest in all the fortunes of the kingdom of God on earth, and express it in prayers and intercessions.821 This was supposed to be warranted by some passages of Scripture, like Luke xv. 10, which speaks of the angels (not the saints) rejoicing over the conversion of a sinner, and Rev. viii. 3, 4, which represents an angel as laying the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne of God. But the New Testament expressly rebukes the worship of the angels (Col. ii. 18; Rev. xix. 10; xxii. 8, 9), and furnishes not a single example of an actual invocation of dead men; and it nowhere directs us to address our prayers to any creature. Mere inferences from certain premises, however plausible, are, in such weighty matters, not enough. The intercession of the saints for us was drawn as a probable inference from the duty of all Christians to pray for others, and the invocation of the saints for their intercession was supported by the unquestioned right to apply to living saints for their prayers, of which even the apostles availed themselves in their epistles.
But here rises the insolvable question: How can departed saints hear at once the prayers of so many Christians on earth, unless they either partake of divine omnipresence or divine omniscience? And is it not idolatrous to clothe creatures with attributes which belong exclusively to Godhead? Or, if the departed saints first learn from the omniscient God our prayers, and then bring them again before God with their powerful intercessions, to what purpose this circuitous way? Why not at once address God immediately, who alone is able, and who is always ready, to hear His children for the sake of Christ?
Augustine felt this difficulty, and concedes his inability to solve it. He leaves it undecided, whether the saints (as Jerome and others actually supposed) are present in so many places at once, or their knowledge comes through the omniscience of God, or finally it comes through the ministry of angels.822 He already makes the distinction between latreiva, or adoration due to God alone, and the invocatio (douleiva) of the saints, and firmly repels the charge of idolatry, which the Manichaean Faustus brought against the catholic Christians when he said: "Ye have changed the idols into martyrs, whom ye worship with the like prayers, and ye appease the shades of the dead with wine and flesh." Augustine asserts that the church indeed celebrates the memory of the martyrs with religious solemnity, to be stirred up to imitate them, united with their merits, and supported by their prayers,823 but it offers sacrifice and dedicates altars to God alone. Our martyrs, says he, are not gods; we build no temples to our martyrs, as to gods; but we consecrate to them only memorial places, as to departed men, whose spirits live with God; we build altars not to sacrifice to the martyrs, but to sacrifice with them to the one God, who is both ours and theirs.824 But in spite of all these distinctions and cautions, which must be expected from a man like Augustine, and acknowledged to be a wholesome restraint against excesses, we cannot but see in the martyr-worship, as it was actually practised, a new form of the hero-worship of the pagans. Nor can we wonder in the least. For the great mass of the Christian people came, in fact, fresh from polytheism, without thorough conversion, and could not divest themselves of their old notions and customs at a stroke. The despotic form of government, the servile subjection of the people, the idolatrous homage which was paid to the Byzantine emperors and their statues, the predicates divina, sacra, coelestia, which were applied to the utterances of their will, favored the worship of saints. The heathen emperor Julian sarcastically reproached the Christians with reintroducing polytheism into monotheism, but, on account of the difference of the objects, revolted from the Christian worship of martyrs and relics, as from the "stench of graves and dead men’s bones." The Manichaean taunt we have already mentioned. The Spanish presbyter Vigilantius, in the fifth century, called the worshippers of martyrs and relics, ashes-worshippers and idolaters,825 and taught that, according to the Scriptures, the living only should pray with and for each other. Even some orthodox church teachers admitted the affinity of the saint-worship with heathenism, though with the view of showing that all that is good in the heathen worship reappears far better in the Christian. Eusebius cites a passage from Plato on the worship of heroes, demi-gods, and their graves, and then applies it to the veneration of friends of God and champions of true religion; so that the Christians did well to visit their graves, to honor their memory there, and to offer their prayers.826 The Greeks, Theodoret thinks, have the least reason to be offended at what takes place at the graves of the martyrs; for the libations and expiations, the demi-gods and deified men, originated with themselves. Hercules, Aesculapius, Bacchus, the Dioscuri, and the like, are deified men; consequently it cannot be a reproach to the Christians that they—not deify, but—honor their martyrs as witnesses and servants of God. The ancients saw nothing censurable in such worship of the dead. The saints, our helpers and patrons, are far more worthy of such honor. The temples of the gods are destroyed, the philosophers, orators, and emperors are forgotten, but the martyrs are universally known. The feasts of the gods are now replaced by the festivals of Peter, Paul, Marcellus, Leontius, Antonins, Mauricius, and other martyrs, not with pagan pomp and sensual pleasures, but with Christian soberness and decency.827
Yet even this last distinction which Theodoret asserts, sometimes disappeared. Augustine laments that in the African church banqueting and revelling were daily practised in honor of the martyrs,828 but thinks that this weakness must be for the time indulged from regard to the ancient customs of the pagans. In connection with the new hero-worship a new mythology also arose, which filled up the gaps of the history of the saints, and sometimes even transformed the pagan myths of gods and heroes into Christian legends.829 The superstitious imagination, visions, and dreams, and pious fraud famished abundant contributions to the Christian legendary poesy.
The worship of the saints found eloquent vindication and encouragement not only, in poets like Prudentius (about 405) and Paulinus of Nola (died 431), to whom greater freedom is allowed, but even in all the prominent theologians and preachers of the Nicene and post-Nicene age. It was as popular as monkery, and was as enthusiastically commended by the leaders of the church in the East and West.
The two institutions, moreover, are closely connected and favor each other. The monks were most zealous friends of saint-worship in their own cause. The church of the fifth century already went almost as far in it as the Middle Age, at all events quite as far as the council of Trent; for this council does not prescribe the invocation of the saints, but confines itself to approving it as "good and useful" (not as necessary) on the ground of their reigning with Christ in heaven and their intercession for us, and expressly remarks that Christ is our only, Redeemer and Saviour.830 This moderate and prudent statement of the doctrine, however, has not yet removed the excesses which the Roman Catholic people still practise in the worship of the saints, their images, and their relics. The Greek church goes even further in theory than the Roman; for the confession of Peter Mogilas (which was subscribed by the four Greek patriarchs in 1643, and again sanctioned by the council of Jerusalem in 1672), declares it duty and propriety (crevo") to implore the intercession (mesiteiva) of Mary and the saints with God for us.
We now cite, for proof and further illustration, the most important passages from the church fathers of our period on this point. In the numerous memorial discourses of the church fathers, the martyrs are loaded with eulogies, addressed as present, and besought for their protection. The universal tone of those productions is offensive to the Protestant taste, and can hardly be reconciled with evangelical ideas of the exclusive and all-sufficient mediation of Christ and of justification by pure grace without the merit of works. But it must not be forgotten that in these discourses very much is to be put to the account of the degenerate, extravagant, and fulsome rhetoric of that time. The best church fathers, too, never separated the merits of the saints from the merits of Christ, but considered the former as flowing out of the latter.
We begin with the Greek fathers. Basil the Great calls the forty soldiers who are said to have suffered martyrdom under Licinius in Sebaste about 320, not only a "holy choir," an "invincible phalanx," but also "common patrons of the human family, helpers of our prayers and most mighty intercessors with God."831
Ephraim Syrus addresses the departed saints, in general, in such words as these: "Remember me, ye heirs of God, ye brethren of Christ, pray to the Saviour for me, that I through Christ may be delivered from him who assaults me from day to day;" and the mother of a martyr: "O holy, true, and blessed mother, plead for me with the saints, and pray: ’Ye triumphant martyrs of Christ, pray for Ephraim, the least, the miserable,’ that I may find grace, and through the grace of Christ may be saved."
Gregory of Nyssa asks of St. Theodore, whom he thinks invisibly present at his memorial feast, intercessions for his country, for peace, for the preservation of orthodoxy, and begs him to arouse the apostles Peter and Paul and John to prayer for the church planted by them (as if they needed such an admonition!). He relates with satisfaction that the people streamed to the burial place of this saint in such multitudes that the place looked like an ant hill. In his Life of St. Ephraim, he tells of a pilgrim who lost himself among the barbarian posterity of Ishmael, but by the prayer, "St. Ephraim, help me!"832 and the protection of the saint, happily found his way home. He himself thus addresses him at the close: "Thou who standest at the holy altar, and with angels servest the life-giving and most holy Trinity, remember us all, and implore for us the forgiveness of sins and the enjoyment of the eternal kingdom."833
Gregory Nazianzen is convinced that the departed Cyprian guides and protects his church in Carthage more powerfully by his intercessions than he formerly did by his teachings, because he now stands so much nearer the Deity; he addresses him as present, and implores his favor and protection.834 In his eulogy on Athanasius, who was but a little while dead, he prays: "Look graciously down upon us, and dispose this people to be perfect worshippers of the perfect Trinity; and when the times are quiet, preserve us—when they are troubled, remove us, and take us to thee in thy fellowship."
Even Chrysostom did not rise above the spirit of the time. He too is an eloquent and enthusiastic advocate of the worship of the saints and their relics. At the close of his memorial discourse on Sts. Bernice and Prosdoce—two saints who have not even a place in the Roman calendar—he exhorts his hearers not only on their memorial days but also on other days to implore these saints to be our protectors: "For they have great boldness not merely during their life but also after death, yea, much greater after death.835 For they now bear the stigmata of Christ [the marks of martyrdom], and when they show these, they can persuade the King to anything." He relates that once, when the harvest was endangered by excessive rain, the whole population of Constantinople flocked to the church of the Apostles, and there elected the apostles Peter and Andrew, Paul and Timothy, patrons and intercessors before the throne of grace.836 Christ, says he on Heb. i. 14, redeems us as Lord and Master, the angels redeem us as ministers.
Asterius of Amasia calls the martyr Phocas, the patron of mariners, "a pillar and foundation of the churches of God in the world, the most renowned of the martyrs, who draws men of all countries in hosts to his church in Sinope, and who now, since his death, distributes more abundant nourishment than Joseph in Egypt."
Among the Latin fathers, Ambrose of Milan is one of the first and most decided promoters of the worship of saints. We cite a passage or two. "May Peter, who so successfully weeps for himself, weep also for us, and turn upon us the friendly look of Christ.837 The angels, who are appointed to guard us, must be invoked for us; the martyrs, to whose intercession we have claim by the pledge of their bodies, must be invoked. They who have washed away their sins by their own blood, may pray for our sins. For they are martyrs of God, our high priests, spectators of our life and our acts. We need not blush to use them as intercessors for our weakness; for they also knew the infirmity of the body when they gained the victory over it."838
Jerome disputes the opinion of Vigilantius, that we should pray for one another in this life only, and that the dead do not hear our prayers, and ascribes to departed saints a sort of omnipresence, because, according to Rev. xiv. 4, they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.839 He thinks that their prayers are much more effectual in heaven than they were upon earth. If Moses implored the forgiveness of God for six hundred thousand men, and Stephen, the first martyr, prayed for his murderers after the example of Christ, should they cease to pray, and to be heard, when they are with Christ?
Augustine infers from the interest which the rich man in hell still had in the fate of his five surviving brothers (Luke xvi. 27), that the pious dead in heaven must have even far more interest in the kindred and friends whom they have left behind.840 He also calls the saints our intercessors, yet under Christ, the proper and highest Intercessor, as Peter and the other apostles are shepherds under the great chief Shepherd.841 In a memorial discourse on Stephen, he imagines that martyr, and St. Paul who stoned him, to be present, and begs them for their intercessions with the Lord with whom they reign.842 He attributes miraculous effects, even the raising of the dead, to the intercessions of Stephen.843 But, on the other hand, he declares, as we have already observed, his inability to solve the difficult question of the way in which the dead can be made acquainted with our wishes and prayers. At all events, in Augustine’s practical religion the worship of the saints occupies a subordinate place. In his "Confessions" and "Soliloquies" he always addresses himself directly to God, not to Mary nor to martyrs.
The Spanish poet Prudentius flees with prayers and confessions of sin to St. Laurentius, and considers himself unworthy to be heard by Christ Himself.844
The poems of Paulinus of Nola are full of direct prayers for the intercessions of the saints, especially of St. Felix, in whose honor he erected a basilica, and annually composed an ode, and whom he calls his patron, his father, his lord. He relates that the people came in great crowds around the wonder-working relics of this saint on his memorial day, and could not look on them enough.
Leo the Great, in his sermons, lays great stress on the powerful intercession of the apostles Peter and Paul, and of the Roman martyr Laurentius.845
Pope Gregory the Great, [became pope in 1073AD], at the close of our period, went much farther.
According to this we cannot wonder that the Virgin Mary and the saints are interwoven also in the prayers of the liturgies,846 and that their merits and intercession stand by the side of the merits of Christ as a ground of the acceptance of our prayers.
§ 85. Festivals of the Saints.
The system of saint-worship, like that of the worship of Mary, became embodied in a series of religious festivals, of which many had only a local character, some a provincial, some a universal. To each saint a day of the year, the day of his death, or his heavenly birthday, was dedicated, and it was celebrated with a memorial oration and exercises of divine worship, but in many cases desecrated by unrestrained amusements of the people, like the feasts of the heathen gods and heroes.
The most important saints’ days which come down from the early church, and bear a universal character, are the following:
1. The feast of the two chief apostles Peter and Paul,847 on the twenty-ninth of June, the day of their martyrdom. It is with the Latins and the Greeks the most important of the feasts of the apostles, and, as the homilies for the day by Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, and Leo the Great show, was generally introduced as early as the fourth century 2. Besides this, the Roman church has observed since the fifth century a special feast in honor of the prince of the apostles and for the glorification of the papal office: the feast of the See of Peter848 on the twenty-second of February, the day on which, according to tradition, he took possession of the Roman bishopric. With this there was also an Antiochan St. Peter's day on the eighteenth of January, in memory of the supposed episcopal reign of this apostle in Antioch. The Catholic liturgists dispute which of these two feasts is the older. After Leo the Great, the bishops used to keep the Natales. Subsequently the feast of the ChainsofPeter849 was introduced in memory of the chains which Peter wore, according to Acts xii. 6, under Herod at Jerusalem, and, according to the Roman legend, in the prison at Rome under Nero. 3. The feast of John, the apostle and evangelist, on the twenty-seventh of December, has already been mentioned in connection with the Christmas cycle.850 4. Likewise the feast of the protomartyr Stephen, on the twenty-sixth of December, after the fourth century.851 5. The feast of JohntheBaptist, the last representative of the saints before Christ. This was, contrary to the general rule, a feast of his birth, not his martyrdom, and, with reference to the birth festival of the Lord on the twenty-fifth of December, was celebrated six months earlier, on the twenty-fourth of June, the summer solstice. This was intended to signify at once his relation to Christ and his well-known word: "He must increase, but I must decrease." He represented the decreasing sun of the ancient covenant; Christ, the rising sun of the new.852 In order to celebrate more especially the martyrdom of the Baptist, a feast of the BeheadingofJohn,853 on the twenty-ninth of August, was afterward introduced; but this never became so important and popular as the feast of his birth. 6. To be just to all the heroes of the faith, the Greek church, after the fourth century, celebrated a feast of All Saints on the Sunday after Pentecost (the Latin festival of the Trinity).854 The Latin church, after 610, kept a similar feast, the Festum Omnium Sanctorum, on the first of November; but this did not come into general use till after the ninth century. 7. The feast of the Archangel Michael,855 the leader of the hosts of angels, and the representative of the church triumphant,856 on the twenty-ninth of September. This owes its origin to some miraculous appearances of Michael in the Catholic legends.857 The worship of the angels developed itself simultaneously with the worship of Mary and the saints, and churches also were dedicated to angels, and called after their names. Thus Constantine the Great built a church to the archangel Michael on the right bank of the Black Sea, where the angel, according to the legend, appeared to some ship-wrecked persons and rescued them from death. Justinian I. built as many as six churches to him. Yet the feast of Michael, which some trace back to Pope Gelasius I., a.d. 493, seems not to have become general till after the ninth century.
§ 86. The Christian Calendar. The Legends of the Saints. The Acta Sanctorum.
This is the place for some observations on the origin and character of the Christian calendar with reference to its ecclesiastical elements, the catalogue of saints and their festivals.
The Christian calendar, as to its contents, dates from the fourth and later centuries; as to its form, it comes down from classical antiquity, chiefly from the Romans, whose numerous calendars contained, together with astronomical and astrological notes, tables also of civil and religious festivals and public sports. Two calendars of Christian Rome still extant, one of the year 354, the other of the year 448,858 show the transition. The former contains for the first time the Christian week beginning with Sunday, together with the week of heathen Rome; the other contains Christian feast days and holidays, though as yet very few, viz., four festivals of Christ and six martyr days. The oldest purely Christian calendar is a Gothic one, which originated probably in Thrace in the fourth century. The fragment still extant859 contains thirty-eight days for November and the close of October, among which seven days are called by the names of saints (two from the Bible, three from the church universal, and two from the Gothic church).
There are, however, still earlier lists of saints’ days, according to the date of the holiday; the oldest is a Roman one of the middle of the fourth century, which contains the memorial days of twelve bishops of Rome and twenty-four martyrs, together with the festival of the birth of Christ and the festival of Peter on the twenty-second of February.
Such tables are the groundwork of the calendar and the martyrologies. At first each community or province had its own catalogue of feasts, hence also its own calendar. Such local registers were sometimes called diptycha860 (divptuca), because they were recorded on tables with two leaves; yet they commonly contained, besides the names of the martyrs, the names also of the earlier bishops and still living benefactors or persons, of whom the priests were to make mention by name in the prayer before the consecration of the elements in the eucharist. The spread of the worship of a martyr, which usually started from the place of his martyrdom, promoted the interchange of names. The great influence of Rome gave to the Roman festival-list and calendar the chief currency in the West. Gradually the whole calendar was filled up with the names of saints. As the number of the martyrs exceeded the number of days in the year, the commemoration of several must fall upon the same day, or the canonical hours of cloister devotion must be given up. The oriental calendar is richer in saints from the Old Testament than the occidental.861 With the calendars are connected the Martyrologia, or Acta Martyrum, Acta Sanctorum, called by the Greeks Menologia and Menaea.862 There were at first only "Diptycha" and "Calendaria martyrum," i.e., lists of the names of the martyrs commemorated by the particular church in the order of the days of their death on the successive days of the year, with or without statements of the place and manner of their passion. This simple skeleton became gradually animated with biographical sketches, coming down from different times and various authors, containing a confused mixture of history and fable, truth and fiction, piety and superstition, and needing to be used with great critical caution. As these biographies of the saints were read on their annual days in the church and in the cloisters for the edification of the people, they were called Legenda.
The first Acts of the Martyrs come down from the second and third centuries, in part from eye-witnesses, as, for example, the martyrdom of Polycarp (a.d. 167), and of the martyrs of Lyons and Vienne in South Gaul; but most of them originated, at least in their present form, in the post-Constantinian age. Eusebius wrote a general martyrology, which is lost. The earliest Latin martyrology is ascribed to Jerome, but at all events contains many later additions; this father, however, furnished valuable contributions to such works in his "Lives of eminent Monks" and his "Catalogue of celebrated Church Teachers." Pope Gelasius thought good to prohibit or to restrict the church reading of the Acts of the Saints, because the names of the authors were unknown, and superfluous and incongruous additions by heretics or uneducated persons (idiotis) might be introduced. Gregory the Great speaks of a martyrology in use in Rome and elsewhere, which is perhaps the same afterward ascribed to Jerome and widely spread. The presentMartyrologium Romanum, which embraces the saints of all countries, is an expansion of this, and was edited by Baronius with a learned commentary at the command of Gregory XIII. and Sixtus V. in 1586, and afterward enlarged by the Jesuit Heribert Rosweyd.
Rosweyd († 1629) also sketched, toward the close of the sixteenth century, the plan for the celebrated "Acta Sanctorum, quotquot toto orbe coluntur," which Dr. John van Bolland († 1665) and his companions and continuators, called Bollandists (Henschen, † 1681; Papenbroek, † 1714; Sollier, † 1740; Stiltinck, † 1762, and others of inferior merit), published at Antwerp in fifty-three folio volumes, between the years 1643 and 1794 (including the two volumes of the second series), under the direction of the Jesuits, and with the richest and rarest literary aids.863 This work contains, in the order of the days of the year, the biography of every saint in the Catholic calendar, as composed by the Bollandists, down to the fifteenth of October, together with all the acts of canonization, papal bulls, and other ancient documents belonging thereto, with learned treatises and notes; and that not in the style of popular legends, but in the tone of thorough historical investigation and free criticism, so far as a general accordance with the Roman Catholic system of faith would allow.864 It was interrupted in 1773 by the abolition of the order of the Jesuits, then again in 1794, after a brief resumption of labor and the publication of two more volumes (the fifty-second and fifty-third), by the French Revolution and invasion of the Netherlands and the partial destruction of the literary, material; but since 1845 (or properly since 1837) it has been resumed at Brussels under the auspices of the same order, though not with the same historical learning and critical acumen, and proceeds tediously toward completion.865 This colossal and amazing work of more than two centuries of pious industry and monkish learning will always remain a rich mine for the system of martyr and saint-worship and the history of Christian life.
§ 87. Worship of Relics. Dogma of the Resurrection. Miracles of Relics.
Comp. the Literature at § 84. Also J. Mabillon (R.C.): Observationes de sanctorum reliquiis (Praef. ad Acta s. Bened. Ordinis). Par. 1669. Barrington and Kirk (R.C.): The Faith of Catholics, &c. Lond. 1846. Vol. iii. pp. 250–307. On the Protestant side, J. H. Jung: Disquisitio antiquaria de reliqu. et profanis et sacris earumque cultu, ed. 4. Hannov. 1783.
The veneration of martyrs and saints had respect, in the first instance, to their immortal spirits in heaven, but came to be extended, also, in a lower degree, to their earthly remains or relics.866 By these are to be understood, first, their bodies, or rather parts of them, bones, blood, ashes; then all which was in any way closely connected with their persons, clothes, staff, furniture, and especially the instruments of their martyrdom. After the time of Ambrose the cross of Christ also, which, with the superscription and the nails, are said to have been miraculously discovered by the empress Helena in 326,867 was included, and subsequently His crown of thorns and His coat, which are preserved, the former, according to the legend, in Paris, and the latter in Treves.868 Relics of the body of Christ cannot be thought of, since He arose without seeing corruption, and ascended to heaven, where, above the reach of idolatry and superstition, He is enthroned at the right hand of the Father. His true relics are the Holy Supper and His living presence in the church to the end of the world.
The worship of relics, like the worship of Mary and the saints, began in a sound religious feeling of reverence, of love, and of gratitude, but has swollen to an avalanche, and rushed into all kinds of superstitious and idolatrous excess. "The most glorious thing that the mind conceives," says Goethe, "is always set upon by a throng of more and more foreign matter."
As Israel could not sustain the pure elevation of its divinely revealed religion, but lusted after the flesh pots of Egypt and coquetted with sensuous heathenism so it fared also with the ancient church.
The worship of relics cannot be derived from Judaism; for the Levitical law strictly prohibited the contact of bodies and bones of the dead as defiling.869 Yet the isolated instance of the bones of the prophet Elisha quickening by their contact a dead man who was cast into his tomb,870 was quoted in behalf of the miraculous power of relics; though it should be observed that even this miracle did not lead the Israelites to do homage to the bones of the prophet nor abolish the law of the uncleanness of a corpse. The heathen abhorred corpses, and burnt them to ashes, except in Egypt, where embalming was the custom and was imitated by the Christians on the death of martyrs, though St. Anthony protested against it. There are examples, however, of the preservation of the bones of distinguished heroes like Theseus, and of the erection of temples over their graves.871
The Christian relic worship was primarily a natural consequence of the worship of the saints, and was closely connected with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which was an essential article of the apostolic tradition, and is incorporated in almost all the ancient creeds. For according to the gospel the body is not an evil substance, as the Platonists, Gnostics, Manichaeans held, but a creature of God; it is redeemed by Christ; it becomes by the regeneration an organ and temple of the Holy Ghost; and it rests as a living seed in the grave, to be raised again at the last day, and changed into the likeness of the glorious body of Christ. The bodies of the righteous "grow green" in their graves, to burst forth in glorious bloom on the morning of the resurrection. The first Christians from the beginning set great store by this comforting doctrine, at which the heathen, like Celsus and Julian, scoffed. Hence they abhorred also the heathen custom of burning, and adopted the Jewish custom of burial with solemn religious ceremonies, which, however, varied in different times and countries.
But in the closer definition of the dogma of the resurrection two different tendencies appeared: a spiritualistic, represented by the Alexandrians, particularly by Origen and still later by the two Gregories; the other more realistic, favored by the Apostles’ Creed,872 advocated by Tertullian, but pressed by some church teachers, like Epiphanius and Jerome, in a grossly materialistic manner, without regard to the sw'ma pveumatikovn of Paul and the declaration that "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God."873 The latter theory was far the more consonant with the prevailing spirit of our period, entirely supplanted the other, and gave the mortal remains of the saints a higher value, and the worship of them a firmer foundation. Roman Catholic historians and apologists find a justification of the worship and the healing virtue of relics in three facts of the New Testament: the healing of the woman with the issue of blood by the touch of Jesus’ garment;874 the healing of the sick by the shadow of Peter;875and the same by handkerchiefs from Paul.876 These examples, as well as the miracle wrought by the bones of Elisha, were cited by Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and other fathers, to vindicate similar and greater miracles in their time. They certainly mark the extreme limit of the miraculous, beyond which it passes into the magical. But in all these cases the living and present person was the vehicle of the healing power; in the second case Luke records merely the popular belief, not the actual healing; and finally neither Christ nor the apostles themselves chose that method, nor in any way sanctioned the superstitions on which it was based.877 At all events, the New Testament and the literature of the apostolic fathers know nothing of an idolatrous veneration of the cross of Christ or the bones and chattels of the apostles. The living words and acts of Christ and the apostles so completely absorbed attention that we have no authentic accounts of the bodily appearance, the incidental externals, and transient possessions of the founders of the church. Paul would know Christ after the spirit, not after the flesh. Even the burial places of most of the apostles and evangelists are unknown. The traditions of their martyrdom and their remains date from a much later time, and can claim no historical credibility. The first clear traces of the worship of relics appear in the second century in the church of Antioch, where the bones of the bishop and martyr Ignatius († 107) were preserved as a priceless treasure;878 and in Smyrna, where the half-burnt bones of Polycarp († 167) were considered "more precious than the richest jewels and more tried than gold."879 We read similar things in the Acts of the martyrs Perpetua and Cyprian. The author of the Apostolic Constitutions880 exhorts that the relics of the saints, who are with the God of the living and not of the dead, be held in honor, and appeals to the miracle of the bones of Elisha, to the veneration which Joseph showed for the remains of Jacob, and to the bringing of the bones of Joseph by Moses and Joshua into the promised land.881 Eusebius states that the episcopal throne of James of Jerusalem was preserved to his time, and was held in great honor.882
Such pious fondness for relics, however, if it is confined within proper limits, is very natural and innocent, and appears even in the Puritans of New England, where the rock in Plymouth, the landing place of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, has the attraction of a place of pilgrimage, and the chair of the first governor of Massachusetts is scrupulously preserved, and is used at the inauguration of every new president of Harvard University.
But toward the middle of the fourth century the veneration of relics simultaneously with the worship of the saints, assumed a decidedly superstitious and idolatrous character. The earthly remains of the martyrs were discovered commonly by visions and revelations, often not till centuries after their death, then borne in solemn processions to the churches and chapels erected to their memory, and deposited under the altar;883 and this event was annually celebrated by a festival.884 The legend of the discovery of the holy cross gave rise to two church festivals: The Feast of the Invention of the Cross885 on the third of May, which has been observed in the Latin church since the fifth or sixth century; and TheFeast of theElevation of the Cross,886 on the fourteenth of September, which has been observed in the East and the West, according to some since the consecration of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335, according to others only since the reconquest of the holy cross by the emperor Heraclius in 628. The relics were from time to time displayed to the veneration of the believing multitude, carried about in processions, preserved in golden and silver boxes, worn on the neck as amulets against disease and danger of every kind, and considered as possessing miraculous virtue, or more strictly, as instruments through which the saints in heaven, in virtue of their connection with Christ, wrought miracles of healing and even of raising the dead. Their number soon reached the incredible, even from one and the same original; there were, for example, countless splinters of the pretended cross of Christ from Jerusalem, while the cross itself is said to have remained, by a continued miracle, whole and undiminished! Veneration of the cross and crucifix knew no bounds, but can, by no means, be taken as a true measure of the worship of the Crucified; on the contrary, with the great mass the outward form came into the place of the spiritual intent, and the wooden and silver Christ was very often a poor substitute for the living Christ in the heart.887 Relics became a regular article of trade, but gave occasion, also, for very many frauds, which even such credulous and superstitious relic-worshippers as St. Martin of Tours888 and Gregory the Great889 lamented. Theodosius I., as early as 386, prohibited this trade; and so did many councils; but without success. On this account the bishops found themselves compelled to prove the genuineness of the relics by historical tradition, or visions, or miracles. At first, an opposition arose to this worship of dead men’s bones. St. Anthony, the father of monasticism († 356), put in his dying protest against it, directing that his body should be buried in an unknown place. Athanasius relates this with approbation,890 and he caused several relics which had been given to him to be fastened up, that they might be out of the reach of idolatry.891 But the opposition soon ceased, or became confined to inferior or heretical authors, like Vigilantius and Eunomius, or to heathen opponents like Porphyry and Julian. Julian charges the Christians, on this point, with apostasy from their own Master, and sarcastically reminds them of His denunciation of the Pharisees, who were like whited sepulchres, beautiful without, but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.892 This opposition, of course, made no impression, and was attributed to sheer impiety. Even heretics and schismatics, with few exceptions, embraced this form of superstition, though the Catholic church denied the genuineness of their relics and the miraculous virtue of them The most and the best of the church teachers of our period, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Isidore of Pelusium, Theodoret, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Leo, even those who combated the worship of images on this point, were carried along by the spirit of the time, and gave the weight of their countenance to the worship of relics, which thus became an essential constituent of the Greek and Roman Catholic religion. They went quite as far as the council of Trent,893 which expresses itself more cautiously, on the worship of relics as well as of saints, than the church fathers of the Nicene age. With the good intent to promote popular piety by sensible stimulants and tangible supports, they became promoters of dangerous errors and gross superstition.
To cite some of the most important testimonies:
Gregory Nazianzen thinks the bodies of the saints can as well perform miracles, as their spirits, and that the smallest parts of the body or of the symbols of their passion are as efficacious as the whole body.894 Chrysostom values the dust and ashes of the martyrs more highly than gold or jewels, and ascribes to them the power of healing diseases and putting death to flight.895 In his festal discourse on the translation of the relics of the Egyptian martyrs from Alexandria to Constantinople, he extols the bodies of the saints in eloquent strains as the best ramparts of the city against all visible enemies and invisible demons, mightier than walls, moats, weapons, and armies.896 "Let others," says Ambrose, "heap up silver and gold; we gather the nails wherewith the martyrs were pierced, and their victorious blood, and the wood of their cross."897 He himself relates at large, in a letter to his sister, the miraculous discovery of the bones of the twin brothers Gervasius and Protasius, two otherwise wholly unknown and long-forgotten martyrs of the persecution under Nero or Domitian.898 This is one of the most notorious relic miracles of the early church. It is attested by the most weighty authorities, by Ambrose and his younger contemporaries, his secretary and biographer Paulinus, the bishop Paulinus of Nola, and Augustine, who was then in Milan; it decided the victory of the Nicene orthodoxy over the Arian opposition of the empress Justina; yet is it very difficult to be believed, and seems at least in part to rest on pious frauds.899 The story is, that when Ambrose, in 386, wished to consecrate the basilica at Milan, he was led by a higher intimation in a vision to cause the ground before the doors of Sts. Felix and Nahor to be dug up, and there he found two corpses of uncommon size, the heads severed from the bodies (for they died by the sword), the bones perfectly preserved, together with a great quantity of fresh blood.900 These were the saints in question. They were exposed for two days to the wondering multitude, then borne in solemn procession to the basilica of Ambrose, performing on the way the healing of a blind man, Severus by name, a butcher by trade, and afterward sexton of this church. This, however, was not the only miracle which the bones performed. "The age of miracles returned," says Ambrose. "How many pieces of linen, how many portions of dress, were cast upon the holy relics and were recovered with the power of healing from that touch.901 It is a source of joy to all to touch but the extremest portion of the linen that covers them; and whoso touches is healed. We give thee thanks, O Lord Jesus, that thou hast stirred up the energies of the holy martyrs at this time, wherein thy church has need of stronger defence. Let all learn what combatants I seek, who are able to contend for us, but who do not assail us, who minister good to all, harm to none." In his homily De inventione SS. Gervasii et Protasii, he vindicates the miracle of the healing of the blind man against the doubts of the Arians, and speaks of it as a universally acknowledged and undeniable fact: The healed man, Severus, is well known, and publicly testifies that he received his sight by the contact of the covering of the holy relics. Jerome calls Vigilantius, for his opposition to the idolatrous veneration of ashes and bones, a wretched man, whose condition cannot be sufficiently pitied, a Samaritan and Jew, who considered the dead unclean; but he protects himself against the charge of superstition. We honor the relics of the martyrs, says he, that we may adore the God of the martyrs; we honor the servants, in order thereby to honor the Master, who has said: "He that receiveth you, receiveth me."902 The saints are not dead; for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Neither are they enclosed in Abraham’s bosom as in a prison till the day of Judgment, but they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.903 Augustine believed in the above-mentioned miraculous discovery of the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, and the healing of the blind man by contact with them, because he himself was then in Milan, in 386, at the time of his conversion,904 and was an eye-witness, not indeed of the discovery of the bones—for this he nowhere says—but of the miracles, and of the great stir among the people.905 He gave credit likewise to the many miraculous cures which the bones of the first martyr Stephen are said to have performed in various parts of Africa in his time.906 These relics were discovered in 415, nearly four centuries after the stoning of Stephen, in an obscure hamlet near Jerusalem, through a vision of Gamaliel, by a priest of Lucian; and some years afterward portions of them were transported to Uzali, not far from Utica, in North Africa, and to Spain and Gaul, and everywhere caused the greatest ado in the superstitious populace. But Augustine laments, on the other hand, the trade in real and fictitious relics, which was driven in his day,907 and holds the miracles to be really superfluous, now that the world is converted to Christianity, so that he who still demands miracles, is himself a miracle.908 Though he adds, that to that day miracles were performed in the name of Jesus by the sacraments or by the saints, but not with the same lustre, nor with the same significance and authority for the whole Christian world.909 Thus he himself furnishes a warrant and an entering wedge for critical doubt in our estimate of those phenomena.910