Archive for December, 2008

Relics and altars

Posted in Uncategorized on December 4, 2008 by cockett1

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”( Revelation 6:9-10)

Commenting on the above passage in one of her many excellent articles, Frederica Mathewes-Green writes:
“During the first centuries of Christianity, the church was battered within and without. Pseudo-Christians distorted the faith and misled the faithful, while the powerful Roman Empire persecuted Christians with torture and death. When local church members were able to gather the remains of their fellow-believers (often, this was forbidden), they lovingly interred these broken bodies beneath their altars, a reminder that the blessed departed are invisibly present to join us in worship. St. John writes that, in his vision, he heard the voice of the martyrs crying out from under the altar.”

Is this the basis for the practice in some churches for embedding a relic in the altar? I remember once when I was sacristan in the college chapel of St. Michael’s in Llandaff, Cardiff, taking the altar linen off before a service and noticing a slab of concrete placed in the middle of the wooden top. When I asked what it was I was told that it contained the relic of a saint or martyr and it was the inclusion of that that made it a legitimate altar.

In an article on the subject in OrthodoxWiki it states: “The relics of the saints are venerated because in Orthodox belief the body remains temple of the Holy Spirit even after death.” It then quotes St.Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) who writes:”Though the soul is not present a power resides in the bodies of the saints because of the righteous soul which has for so many years dwelt in it, or used it as its minister.”

It is this tradition, dating back at least to the fourth century, that is maintained today. Is an altar a legitimate altar if there is no relic? Why not? The Eucharist is still the Eucharist wherever it is commemorated. But why did the tradition emerge if there were no benefit to be gained and it was just a ‘nice’ thing to do. If there is power in the remains of a saint then why not gain access to it through embedding one in an altar. I can think of no better place to put it.