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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.< Helena | Weapon of Peace >