A Jewish girlfriend of mine, a guest for the summer in Greece, “freaked” when she saw the undecomposed corpse of St. Efraim the “quick to hear” close to the coastal sea town of Rafina. “This is crazy,” she protested, “I’m getting out of here.” It was bad enough to catch sight of dead bodies under a glass case but worse was to have the living kiss and adore them—that was too much. Indeed, this is a normal reaction. Fear is natural in the face of things we do not understand.
I recently returned from a pilgrimage to San Francisco to the Cathedral of the Holy Virgin. There perched on a dais to the far right of the open space of the beautifully adorned church stood the coffin of St John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco. The top of the coffin too was covered by a thick glass so that you could peer into his reposing corpse. His body lay in full view—regaled in his richly decorated archbishop’s robes, his pointy bejeweled slippers, looking like they should belong to some Chinese princess instead of an old wise man. At his head lay his Archmandrite’s crown with the central icon of Christ in majesty circled in a frame of gold. His face was covered by an epitrechelion, also richly embroidered with religious scenes and symbolism. But at his bosom were his hands, holding a wooden cross. His hands were dark mahogany brown, the flesh of which was clearly visible to curious peepers.
Now to the uninitiated, gazing into an open casket of someone who’s been deceased for over 48 years could be spooky. In fact, a mother with two grade-school boys visiting the church was taken aback. When the smaller of the brother’s (the one with the black eye) curiously peered into a golden reliquary box lined with neat rows vertically and horizontally of tiny pieces of relics staged on neat cushions around symmetrically circular mounts, he fingered each edge desperately trying to make sense of it, “Mom, what is this?” Even she couldn’t really answer.
Some in the West might be scandalized to see so many body parts, from chips of elbows, to dislocated mandibles, pieces of nail, sometimes entire skulls or hands, exhibited under plain sight. How then do we explain the Orthodox (and Catholic) fascination for the dead? As DH Lawrence once remonstrated, “Christianity is a religion of dust and death.” There are several reasons for deconstructing this Christian fascination with the dead.
First, unlike the West which tries to bury death with the dead, that tries so hard to anaesthesize all traces of it by neat glossy cellophane packaging of animal parts, the Christian East exhorts its faithful to stare death in the face, to keep the remembrance of death daily. Elder (now saint) Porphyrios recounts an anecdote in a 3rd century coenobic monastery of a monk whose job is was to go around to all the other monks of the community and to remind them on a daily basis, “Father, you are going to die.” Remembering the truth that all flesh is born to die, to the contrary of making us morbidly depressed and desperately mournful, has the opposite effect. It imbues our day with the weight and significance that living under a carefree delusional aura of safety cannot. Every act, every choice, every word becomes precious if one keeps the forethought that this day you too might die. Remembrance of death, which the relics spewn all over the sanctuary do so nicely, is actually a blessing. It helps you to savor the day and give thanks for the joy of living. Only when you are intensely aware of death can you appreciate life, ironically.
Secondly, the bodies of these dead are brought to view not by human will, but via the divine. Those are not just any dead people, these are saints. They are the sacred dead; our heroes. Their bodies are not to be discarded but revered as vessels of the Holy Spirit. These people in life struggled to gain the likeness of the Holy and in so doing they channeled the Holy Spirit into their very flesh. This is fundamental to our Church’s understanding of the Incarnation. The Spirit not only acts on the spirit but on the body. Indeed, Orthodoxy consecrates each of us as a living icon of the Holy, holding the potential to carry the sacred even in our deepest bones and to the tips of our fingers. It was Christ’s unparalleled act of the Incarnation when God chose to become Man and the Spirit entered into physical time and the material universe that allows for this similar mystery—an ordinary person was so pleasing to God that the Grace of the Holy Spirit infused every part of their body and soul. It’s the vestige of this holiness that we revere—whether a particle of their bone or a tattered piece of their vestment. The stuff of the material world can carry the holiness of the Spirit so that we can see, taste, feel, hear, smell the sacred, as anyone who has experienced the Divine Liturgy can attest to its appeal to all five senses.
Thirdly, the taking apart of the body of the saints decries the sacrificial and sacramental function of the living martyrs of the Faith even after, or rather especially after, death. The sanctity of some saints and martyrs is manifest after their death. In their physical bodies they reenact the act of the Eucharist as Christ the paragon. Their bodies are broken and scattered in a thousand pieces, some winding their way to opposite sides of the globe, yet uniting and drawing disparate members unto a whole and the ONE. It seems that what the Eucharist is all about, the One breaking apart into many to be dispersed to many so that they may become ONE again. It is an eternal energy loop—the One source breaking into many only to return back to the ONE. A great mystery this is spoken of by Christ Himself. That in order to live one must die, that by breaking the one fruit into its many seeds can the many flourish and become one again. The saints have the honor of expressing this mystery through their flesh and bones, especially since any church cannot be consecrated without the existence of relics, the saints leave their shells behind like so many peanut shells, but their spirit, released from its physical cage, is free to be everywhere. Perhaps this is the greatest reason we as Orthodox like to showcase the bodies of the dead—they are a reminder of the truth of the Resurrection. That your body might lie asleep in the grave, like an old man’s suit as Elder Porphyrios used to say, but your spirit, your spirit is what is eternal. It’s the spirit of St. John that is closer to us now than ever when he was alive, because now he is free to be everywhere. I think it’s the same with our deceased relatives. I am closer to my father (God rest his soul) now than ever I was when he was alive. The bodies of dead saints bring the comfort and the joy of the Resurrection that we too might be heirs to. And not just the resurrection, but the Second Coming where our bodies will be mystically and mysteriously refashioned with our souls to enter the New Creation. The relics of saints even at their bare bones minimum demonstrate that goodness, love, piety—they last forever, especially in death, saints manifest the power of love to surpass the grave. Because as everyone knows, love is more powerful than death. Unlike the poets and painters whose legacy lives on in their work, the saints live on in their whole selves as they gave their entire selves to Christ and not just the work of their hands or minds.
For those who don’t understand the symbols of Orthodoxy, its transference of that symbolism onto physical reality, what translates to the eye as a lot of heavy-draped pilgrims trekking miles to bow to a dead body, might seem like “spookism” as an unwitting onlooker remarked. “Spookism” just might be holiness and when a secular person comes into the presence of the holy, it might give them “the creeps” but for a faithful pilgrim, the bodies of the dead become like seeds waiting to germ into eternal life. When you understand the what and why of what you see and do and come to terms with the symbols, what scared you becomes your comfort.
Indeed, I spent many hours by the open casket of St. John Maximovitch. Here before my eyes lay his body but when I looked up into the famous icon painted of Him over his coffin, I felt the truth of the Resurrection. Those who die, our loved ones, those loved of God, they might act like the glue of the One Church. I am sure I can visit the Church of Shanghai dedicated to St. John Maximovitch and find affinity with his presence and with my fellow brethren as I do in the church in America.
So here lies the mystery of death in the bones of our saintly dead, that death serves as a reminder for our own striving toward holiness, that it serves as a reminder for appreciating the days we have in the land of the living, that it serves as a peephole into the unfolding greater mysteries of eternal life to come.
Glory be to God in His Saints! Holy Heirarch Father John pray to God for us.