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Relics and the True Cross

In Christianity, the earliest report of saving the remains of a body for sacred respect is with St. Polycarp in the second century. (1) The practice of venerating the relics of saints carried over from Old Testament and Greek traditions. (2) When placed in a small container, the early terms for these small amulets with relics is usually phylactery and after the 14th century, reliquary. (3)

Relics in Christian practice were either a body part of a martyr (when possible large pieces or whole bodies were acquired by churches) or an object that either touched a body part of a saint or is associated with the saint. The relics represent the saint as a concrete reminder of their "loyalty, steadfastness, courage, and infinite devotion." (4) Their "justification rests on the beliefs that the saints are close to God (because of their holiness) and accessible to man (whose nature they share), and in the efficacy of intercessory prayer."(5) The practice of the veneration of images follows shortly after the veneration of relics. (6) The Church required relics to be present at each altar according to the Council of Nicea (787) in order for the church to be consecrated.(7)

Because Christ ascended to heaven, the relics of Christ are either objects that were touched, such as the objects of the passion and clothing, or body secretions, such as blood. With Christ, a piece of the cross on which he died became the most widespread and precious relic. Beautiful crosses and reliquaries were crafted to house a portion of the True Cross, called a staurotheca, such as the Cross of Justin II or Crux Vaticana (the oldest cross with a relic of the True cross), the Cross of Cong in the National Museum in Dublin, Beresford Hope Cross, and the Stavelot Triptych in Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Frolow, a French historian, provides insight into the distribution of the pieces of the cross and its importance to the Byzantine empire. In tracking citations of reliquaries of the True Cross, he finds a far less frequent distribution than Cyril’s announcement would seem to indicate. During the fifth through the seventh century, he has only been able to track fifty-four references.(8) After the 12th century, most likely related to the crusades and the return of pilgrimages, the numbers increase somewhat dramatically to 162 in the twelfth century and 260 in the thirteenth century.(9) In looking at these citations and exploring the reliquaries that survive until today, his assessment is that most of them come from around 1000.(10) In another source, he traces a total of 1150 pieces reported of the True cross. (11)

Concerns over the use of relics as idolatry has occurred throughout history. In the fourth century, for instance, Jerome discouraged the use of these relics of the cross for any special power other than as a reminder of the crucifixion of Christ.(12) However, like the miracle involved in its identification, pieces of the True cross were generally believed to possess special powers and also produced cures and miracles. One of the earliest reports is by St. Paulinus, who writes that when his house caught on fire, he used a piece of the cross to put out the flames.(13) Other examples are the use of the relic of the true cross in assuring victory over earthly enemies. Constantinople in 600 placed the relic along with an "unpainted image"image of Christ and the mantle of Mary on the walls "as if they were defensive weapons to ward off attackers."(14) Besides being just a defensive weapon, since the time of Constantine, the cross had been associated with military victory.

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  1. Otto Meinardus, "A Study of the Relics of Saints of the Greek Orthodox Church," Oriens Christianus, 4, vol 18 (1970) 130. [Return]
  2. Martha J. Egan. Relicarios: Devotional Miniatures from the Americas (Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1993) 7. Athens, for instance, had the remains of Theseus. Etruscans placed charms or perfume in a gold or leather hollow amulet called a bulla. Within the Jewish tradition, phylacteries or tefillin are used by the men. These contained sacred script rather than relics or remains. The best known is the tefillin, which is a complicated arrangement of leather straps, one going around a forearm and the other securing a leather box to the forehead. The box contains written passages from Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:12-21. See Rabbi Louis Jacobs for a further explanation. [Return]
  3. Egan, 6. [Return]
  4. Meinardus. He records 3602 relics of 476 saints. Everett Ferguson, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 976, provides additional clarification: "Instead of relics (Latin reliquiae, ‘remains’), believers in late antiquity described the bodies of the special dead as their ‘memory,’ their ‘blessings,’ as ‘tokens’ of a warm affection." [Return]
  5. E.A. Livingstone, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Second edition. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) 512. [Return]
  6. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) 104. [Return]
  7. Peter Murray and Linda Murray, The Oxford Companion to Christian Art and Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) 424. Livingstone, 17, this was no longer required in the Catholic church after 1977. [Return]
  8. Anatole Frolow, "The Veneration of the Relic of the True Cross at the End of the Sixth and the Beginning of the Seventh Centuries," St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 2, No.1 (winter 1958) AtlaReligion (22 February 2004) 15. 5th century, 12; 6th century, 20; 7th century, 22. [Return]
  9. Frolow. [Return]
  10. Frolow, 15-18. [Return]
  11. A. Frolow, La Relique De La Vraie Croix: Recherches sur le Developpement D’Un Culte (Paris: Insititu Francais D’etudes Byzantines, 1961). [Return]
  12. Frolow (1958), 19. Jerome calls such use "a superstition of silly women." [Return]
  13. Frolow. [Return]
  14. Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. trans. Edmund Jephcott (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1994) 61. The "unpainted image" is one of the images not made by human hands, either the mandylion or one of the paintings attributed to St. Luke. [Return]

 Relic of the True Cross
Relic of the True Cross
This relic of the True Cross is enclosed in a large hollow nail and prominently displayed at Mission San Jose, near Fremont, California. Note the facsimile of the title with the script going left to right instead of right to left.

A Weapon of Peace
Hymns During Celebration of the
Elevation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

(short hymn regarding the feast day)
O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.

Kontakion (long hymn) As Thou was mercifully crucified for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Thy name; make all Orthodox Christians glad by Thy power, granting them victories over their adversaries, by bestowing on them the invincible trophy, Thy weapon of peace.

Hymn of Veneration before the Cross
We venerate your cross, O Lord, and we Glorify your Holy Resurrection.

From "Elevation of the Cross" Orthodox Church of America website. This feast is described as the national holiday of the church in the east, similar to the Fourth of July in America.

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