From the editor: March 13, 2015
Will These Bones Live?
Put aside for the purposes of this historical reflection our disagreements about Christian relics of the saints. First, relics are earthly remains of those deemed particularly worthy of remembrance by the church. By custom, church altars in antiquity and in Catholic and Orthodox churches today enshrine some relic, often a bone fragment, a reference to the martyrs of Revelation being "under the altar."
Second, more substantial relics—a full body, in some cases—have sometimes been enshrined within a church sanctuary or even in a crypt beneath the altar. Third, prayers, of course, have been made to saints in these places, and in late Imperial Russia hundreds of such "shrines" attracted pilgrims seeking healing, help, and intercessions.
After 1917, Bolshevik government, facing an ongoing Civil War, sought to pry Russian Orthodox believers away from their faith to embrace the new socialist future without religion. Their scheme was to prove that the relics (moschi) that some claimed were incorruptible were corruptible and therefore frauds. They succeeded in a number of cases, sometimes even filming official government exhumations and "autopsies" by doctors. Lenin made sure that the film of the exhumation of the relics of Sergius Radonezh was featured in Moscow theaters during Easter Week in 1921.
The state took on an exhumation campaign to undermine religion. According to historian Robert H. Greene, the Bolshevik "senior religious expert," I. A. Shpitberg, held that "relics that remained in churches were impediments to the development of the laboring masses." Relics were to be removed and placed in public museums, where they "could serve useful pedagogical and scientific purposes." Mikhail Gorev predicted that the exhumation of Sergius of Radonezh would "extinguish once for all the flickering candles" of pilgrims praying at his shrine.
But the Bolsheviks failed, in part, because church teaching was that relics were any remnant of the body, whether corrupted or not. While relics believed to be incorruptible were shown to be otherwise through the more than 70 exhumations, too many believers testified to miracles and spiritual solace at the shrines.
Regardless of your take on relics, let me suggest that the effort of the Bolsheviks to use science, media, government resources, and legal force to uproot backward religious superstitions and lead millions into an atheist paradise is not unlike that of the secularist powers today. Only today they are more subtle. They view ancient Christian belief as an impediment to their dreams of egalitarian scientific utopias free of Christ.
The war over relics is also, in a sense, to me, symbolic of the war between the devil and Christ for the bodies of believers. The devil wants our bodies, to maim, destroy, and kill. Taking the devil's advice, Adam and Eve brought death to our bodies. Does the devil really care about our bodies? Well, he disputed with Michael over the body of Moses (Jude 9).
Mark well: The risen Jesus has flesh and bones. God will not give up our bodies in the end to his enemies. We should neither give them over ourselves by abusing our bodies through the "corruption that is in the world because of passion" (2 Peter 1:4) nor allow the state to alter the care we have for them.
Christ died on the Cross and rose from the dead to save our souls and bodies from death. He fought against satanic forces and won. By his stripes we are healed-body and soul. Any state that wishes to eradicate Christianity has to destroy that belief. There have been many attempts, and will be many more. All of them failed and will fail.
When I visited Russia in 2010, hundreds of pilgrims visited the shrine of St. Sergius of Radonezh while the tomb of Lenin in Red Square was ignored. Lenin is a very large footnote, maybe even a chapter, in history, an impressive relic of the past. But Christ's tomb is empty and he lives and reigns forever, the Everlasting Man.
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James