What makes religious relics – like the pieces of the “true cross” and the hair of saints – sacred to Christians

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A Russian Moskva missile cruiser, flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, sunk after being heavily damaged in April 2022. Kremlin officials said a fire on board detonated ammunition, while Ukrainian officials claimed they had attacked the Moskva. Many media reports noted that the ship may have been carrying a relic of the “true cross”, a piece of the true wooden cross on which Christians believe Jesus suffered and died.

The possibility that the relic is on the sunken ship cannot be ruled out. A collector reportedly donated the relic in 2020 to the Russian Navy, which planned to place it aboard the Moskva Chapel. It is not known, however, if the relic was on board the ship in its chapel when the ship entered combat. But widespread interest in the possibility of this ancient relic being on board underscores its importance to many Christians.

Inasmuch as expert in medieval Christian liturgy and worshipI know that the veneration of relics has a long history in Christian devotional practice.

worship the martyrs

During the first three centuries of Christianity, Christians, whose religion was forbidden, prayed before the buried bodies of martyrs, who were executed for refusing to renounce their new faith.

After the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in the early 4th century, smaller buildings called sanctuary churches were sometimes built around the tomb of a martyr. Sometimes the the bodies of the martyr were exhumed by the local bishops and reburied in the city itself, in a special tomb under the floor of a larger church or basilica.

Prior to this practice, the bodies of the dead were kept in tombs and catacombs built outside the city walls to separate them from the “city” of the living. But Christians believed in the power of martyrs and later other holy people to intercede for them with God. The saints were respected and their relics and images venerated, but they were not worshiped or revered as God could be.

The cross of Jesus

After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, Jerusalem became an important center for Christians who wanted to take religious trips to visit the places where Jesus and his apostles lived and preached. The term pilgrimage journey of meaningborn at the time.

Meanwhile, what was believed to be a piece of the “True Cross” was brought back to Europe – supposedly by Saint Helena, the emperor’s mother – and broken into small pieces.

Another section remained in Jerusalem and were worshiped there, until at the beginning of the 7th century a Persian emperor, a Zoroastrian, conquered the city and removed the relic among the spoils of war. A few years later, the Persians were themselves conquered by the Christian emperor Heraclius, who brought the relic back to Jerusalem. It remained there, even after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem later that century.

Pilgrimage to see relics

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, the practice of venerating saints also increased.

Demands for a holy “body” increased, and so the remains of famous or local saints were split into pieces, which included hair clippings, or sometimes whole body parts. These “relics” – of a Meaning of the Latin word “something left behind” – were frequently placed in special containers or cases, called reliquaries.

These were usually particularly elaborate, made of precious metals and adorned with jewels as a reflection of the special reverence for those elements that had touched the body of Jesus Christ.

The more famous the relic, the more pilgrims went to the church or monastery where it was kept, and the more the clergy could earn from the offerings visitors made to the shrine.

Worshipers take part in a pilgrimage with the ancient relic of Saint Gregory in Sorlada, northern Spain, in 2017.
AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos

At the turn of the millennium, the number of pilgrims from Europe to visit Jerusalem increased, but rising tensions between Muslim leaders and Christian leaders. There was also friction between various Christian nobles and kings. For this reason, from the end of the 11th to the end of the 13th century, Christian political and religious leaders waged a series of major wars – the Crusades – to regain control of the Holy Land from its Muslim ruler.

One of the results has been an increase in the number of “relics” of Jesus, Mary, and other New Testament figures brought back to Europe and released as authentic.

Some of them included bone or hair fragments of apostles or other holy figures, while others consisted of scraps of cloth from their clothing. Most esteemed of all were the objects which would have touched the body of Jesus himselfespecially those related to his suffering and death, such as the spikes used to nail him to the cross.

power of relics

During the late medieval period, there were an overwhelming number of stories associating relics with miracles, such as unexpected healings or protection from the dangers of time.

Many ordinary Christians treated relics as a sort of lucky rabbit’s foot, possessed or worshiped for personal protection. This was also true for the relics of the true cross. In Venice, for example, several true cross miracle storiesin particular to save ships from storms, has circulated widely.

During the Reformation of the 16th century, many European Protestant writers opposed the Catholic veneration of relics. Most felt it was a practice not found in the Bible; others felt that many believers worshiped saints as if they were divine, and that many devotional practices involving relics involved fraud and superstition, not genuine prayer. Protestant theologian John Calvin suggested that if all the supposed fragments of the “True Cross” were collected, they would fill an entire ship.

Even some Catholic scholars of the time, notably Erasmus of Rotterdam, criticized the fraudulent manipulation of believers for cash offerings when visiting shrines and questioned the authenticity of many relics.

In 1563, the Catholic Council of Trent responded to all these criticisms by clarifying the Catholic view of relics in an official decree. In the document, the assembled bishops underlined that devotional activities involving relics should not border on superstition in any case, that “dirty lucre” – the buying and selling of relics – be “abolished” and that the ceremonies of veneration are not transformed into “revelations and intoxication”.

What makes a relic more valuable

Until very recently, the Catholic tradition divided the relics into several classes, according to their relation to Christ or to the saints. A first class relic was a fragment of a saint’s actual body, such as a tooth, hair clipping, or bone shard.

Pieces of objects involved in the Passion of Christ have also been included in this class, since traditional theology teaches that Jesus Christ rose from the dead after three days in the tomb and physically ascended to heaven 40 days later.

Whether prized as a lucky charm or revered as a powerful reminder of the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, this Russian relic of the True Cross has taken its place in the paradoxical history of these precious religious objects: The Peaceful Message of Jesus was often lost in the violent chaos of war.

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