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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The early Christians believed that after their physical deaths, martyrs and sancti continued to influence the living through their physical remains. As long as their bodies were present, they could continue to exert supernatural power to benefit the sick and those in need. As a result, the bodies of martyrs and other saints were carefully preserved and venerated. Petitions for cures and other miracles were addressed to them. Offerings were brought to them, and to the clergy who were responsible for their tombs. Their names were included in the liturgy, and churches celebrated the anniversaries of their deaths. Typically saints were honored as protectors of congregations or towns, but some saints, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, acquired general appeal across congregations and across geographical location. As certain saints gained in popularity, they began to take on special meaning and special tasks, such as protectors of children or guardians of travelers.

Offerings, veneration, and petitions for intercession were initially made at the tombs of the saints. In the 4th century, in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the Church began moving the bodies of some saints, and often the bones of the saints were distributed as relics to local churches. In part this was to protect the bodies by moving them from tombs to church buildings, and in part this was to address the growing demand for access to the physical remains of saints. At the same time, veneration of saints was extended beyond their physical remains, to images or icons. Relics continue to be treated with great care within the sacred confines of church buildings. Icons are placed in the churches, as well as homes, places of work, and even cars, buses, and taxis.

In normal circumstances, the Church reserves the authority to proclaim someone a saint. But the Greek Church under the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Church under Communism did not issue official proclamations, not wanting to attract the attention of the authorities. Popular veneration of the 'New Martyrs,' victims of Ottoman or Communist persecution, arose spontaneously. The New Martyrs were venerated in secret until it became possible to proclaim new saints openly.


Study Questions:
1.     Who are martyrs? How do they epitomize sainthood?
2.     Who was Macarius? How does his story make him a sancti?
3.     How do saints become relics? Icons?

 

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