Sacred Narratives

The biblical stories of God's divine plan for creation, including the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, are sacred to Eastern Orthodox Christians. These stories, found in the Christian Bible, are common to all Christians. In addition, Eastern Orthodoxy has a strong tradition of venerating martyrs and saints, who are believed to be capable of performing miracles during their lives and after their deaths. They are revered for having a special relationship with Christ because they shared in his suffering. Although worship (Greek, latreia) is reserved for God alone, martyrs and saints are venerated (Greek, dulia) for their loving sacrifices and supernatural power.

In early Christianity, martyrs epitomized sainthood. Christians suffered several waves of intense Roman persecution during the first three centuries of the Common Era, and even during times of relative quiet, the threat of persecution remained. At times the Roman authorities offered Christians the opportunity to recant their faith to save their lives, and many did. Those who did not came to be revered for having loved Christ "even unto death" (Rev. 12:11). The Gospels describe how Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the chance to deny the charges against him, and Jesus declined to do so. Jesus could have saved himself, so the first Christians reasoned, and instead chose death in an overwhelming act of loving sacrifice. Through his crucifixion, Jesus became the first martyr in the Christian tradition. Those who died in Jesus' name, beginning with the apostles, were martyrs who emulated and shared his suffering. As a result, they are close to him in heaven and able to intercede with him on behalf of Christian petitioners.

The end of Roman persecution in the 4th century introduced a new kind of saint. Beginning in Syria, and spreading throughout the Christian world, Christian ascetics who were living lives of self-denial began to be venerated as holy persons, or sancti. Miracles were attributed to the sancti, and because they were said to possess supernatural powers, they often wielded influence as mediators. The story of St. Macarius, born in Egypt c. 300, provides a good example.

Macarius moved to the desert to live an ascetic life when he was thirty years old. One day, hearing a knock on his cell door, he opened it to find a hyena there, with her baby in her jaws, tears streaming from her eyes. Macarius took the whelp from her, and upon examining it, determined that it was blind in both eyes. So he spit into the whelp's face, making the sign of the cross over its eyes. Immediately its sight was restored. The next day, the mother hyena returned to Macarius with the skin of a freshly-killed sheep as an offering of gratitude. Macarius, horrified, chastised the hyena. The hyena fell to the ground in supplication, and Macarius, heart softening at the sight, promised the hyena that he would accept the skin if the hyena promised never to kill again, but only to eat creatures that had died a natural death. "When food is scarce," offered Macarius, "come to me and I will share my loaf with you." The hyena nodded in wordless agreement, and from that day forth, she killed no more prey. In times of scarcity, she visited Macarius and they shared his bread. Macarius slept on his sheepskin for the rest of his life, dying at ninety. St. Macarius is commemorated on January 19.

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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