Imitators of Christ: Is Martyrdom a Sacrament? Part 8

This section of the paper focuses on the continuing help the martyrs give to the church.  The topic of relics and loci are discussed.  The Early Church believed the martyrs and other saints were able to intercede on their behalf and the relics of the saints were responsible for miracles.  

The early Christians believed heaven and earth joined at certain places, one such place was the death of the martyrs.  The martyrs continued to bear fruits even after their deaths, giving miraculous assistance to Christians left on earth.  Heaven and earth did not just join at the time of death for the Christian martyrs but also at the relics and grave sites of the martyrs.  Peter Brown, who has written about the cult of the saints, gives an example of the inscription at the shrine of St. Martin of Tours: “Here lies Martin the bishop, of holy memory, whose soul is in the hand of God; but he is fully here, present and made plain in miracles of every kind.”[1]  The inscription shows that the ancient Christians believed that at the grave of the saints, heaven and earth were joined.  St. Martin could be in heaven, in God’s hand, but could also be fully here on earth, present in the physical, ready to help with miracles of every kind.[2]  St. Ambrose did not like the practice of lighting candles for and kissing the relics of martyrs.[3]  St. Augustine the student of St. Ambrose adopted the same stance as his spiritual father; however, in his own ministry in North Africa he had to change his attitude, because of his church and the changing theology around him.  However, the use of relics goes through a change in St. Augustine’s own lifetime.  Robert Markus explains St. Augustine’s position, “The general change of mood is reflected in Augustine’s own personal evolution between the years 401 and 422: earlier indifference and reserve changed into enthusiastic endorsement.”[4]  Part of this change might have to do with the relics of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, being miraculously discovered in 415.[5]  St. Augustine was especially pleased and excited about this discovery, as expressed in his sermon, “His body lay hidden such a long time, it came to light when God willed, it shed its light on many lands, worked many miracles.”[6]  St. Jerome and St. Gregory of Nyssa believed that the relics of the saints represented the actual person to whom they belonged.  St. Jerome wrote that when he had any sin or anger he would not enter into the presence of the relics, because otherwise he would quake in body and soul.[7]  St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

When the faithful look at the relics, it is as though with the eyes, the mouth, the ears, indeed all the senses they embrace the living body itself still blooming with life.  With tears of reverence and tender feeling they address prayers of intercession to the martyr as though he were actually present there before them.[8]

The relics were traveling loci; in other words, they were traveling places where heaven and earth joined together.[9]  The relics and shrines of the martyrs also held a spiritual power which bore fruit in the earthly Church they left behind.

Most of the posthumous miracles attributed to the saints were healings after contact with their relics or visiting their shrine.  St. Augustine, in his sermon on the feast day of St. Stephen, told of some of the miracles wrought by the prayers of St. Stephen.[10]  He even goes on to show how he made this shrine public: “The reason I wanted to have them written there, after all, was so that any who wanted could read them, read them whenever they wanted…that’s why they are written up in public.”[11]  St. Augustine wants his church to have access to the saints at any time, because their prayers are powerful.  In a sermon preached after the reading of a leaflet about the miracles attributed to the intercession of St. Stephen, St. Augustine begins to tell the story of a miracle performed at Uzalis, when he is interrupted by shouts of praise because a woman had just been healed at the shrine of St. Stephen.  “And while Augustine was saying this the people around the shrine of Saint Stephen began to shout, ‘God be thanked!  Christ be praised!’… the young woman who had just been cured was led into the apse.”[12]  St. Augustine describes the miracles attributed to the intercession of St. Stephen in several of his sermons.  In Sermon 320 he tells the church to witness a man who was cured by the prayers of St. Stephen; St. Augustine presents him to the church saying that his presence is better than a leaflet describing the healing.[13]  From these testimonies and accounts it is clear that the martyrs bear fruit even after their death.  They have been given the power to heal the sick and pray for those Christians left on earth. These relics of the saints and their spiritual power show the fruit of the martyrs, even after their death.

[1] Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 4.

[2] Even though St. Martin of Tours was not a martyr, his posthumous assistance shows the Church at the time believed the holy dead were able to help the living.

[3] Robert Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1990), 148-149.

[4] Ibid. 149.

[5] Ibid. 148.

[6] St. Augustine, Sermons: III/9 (306-340A) on the Saints, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. ed. John E. Rotelle, O.S.A. (Hyde Park: New City Press, 1994), 153.

[7] Brown, 11.

[8] Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 238.

[9] Brown, 11.

[10] Augustine, Sermons III/9, “Sermon 319,” 153.

[11] Ibid. 154.  St Augustine is speaking about the inscription he had written on the shrine.  He does not tell the church what he wrote, but tells them to go read it because it is public.

[12] Augustine, Sermons III/9, “Sermon 323,” 163.

[13] Augustine, Sermons III/9, “Sermon 320,” 157.


About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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