St Paul’s letter to the Colossians was written approximately 61AD and scholars believe it was written in Rome during his captivity before his martyrdom. It contains one of the most wonderful affirmations of Orthodox doctrine on the person of Christ – Christology – and may have been part of an early liturgical prayer – perhaps at baptism. It is a wonderful picture of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over creation, and the mystical union between the Church and our incarnate Saviour, eternally begotten of the Father…
Colossians 1:15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.
16For by Him were all things created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers: all things were created by Him and for Him.
17And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist.
18And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence.
19For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell,
20and having made peace through the blood of His cross, by Him to reconcile all things unto Himself — by Him, I say, whether they be things on earth or things in heaven.
The place of saints in Christianity in general is a hot topic. Many non-Orthodox groups reject showing any kind of reverence towards the Saints in heaven (whom we believe intercede for us) or further yet towards their holy remains. The issue is, can the remains holy saints be the vehicle of God’s grace? We shall see, the Biblical answer is an affirmitave yes! Further, Scripture also gives us a very clear example with the reverence we should show towards the blessed remains of these holy saints.
Firstly, the Scriptures give us a clear indication that the saints offer prayers for us and intercession before God.
Revelation 8:1-41 When He opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. 3Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. 4And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.
Revelation 5:8,98Now when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each having a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
The incense rising from the golden bowls befor the throne of God are the prayers of the saints! When someone walks into an Orthodox Church and witnesses Orthodox Christians worshipping God they will often see pious behaviour directed towards the holy martyrs and saints. This is clearly not the worship we offer God, but a reverence and respect for those blessed ones who preceded us in the Body of Christ. We do not say all are saints, only those whom the Church has approved by God’s will. Yet it can be confusing for someone to see people prostrating and kissing icons etc., and the priests annointing relics with an ancient mixture of spices.
Exodus 13: 19 And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him, for he had placed the children of Israel under solemn oath, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”
With reverence and respect the Hebrews of old preserved and maintained the bones or relics of the prophet and patriarch Joseph for centuries until Moses brought them out of Egypt. This tradition is continued to this day in the Christian Orthodox Churches where the bones of Saints are kept near or under altars and in holy places for the faithful to receive blessings. But, isn’t all this superstitious nonsense? Do these relics really pass on the grace of God? Countless miracles through history and in the modern era attest to an affirmative yes! However, Scripture also reveals another evidence of the power of relics to reflect the glory of God…
2Kings 13:20 Then Elisha died, and they buried him. And the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land in the spring of the year. 21 So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet.
Interestingly, the bones or relics of Elisha still exist and are located in an Orthodox Church in the middle east with the relics of St John the Baptist…
Clearly then the bones of holy saints of God can bestow miraculous blessing upon us on earth. Yet it is without further ado that I wish to share the teaching of St Augustine which clarifies the Orthodox Christian tradition that WORSHIP IS DUE TO GOD ALONE – and further that our reverance for the saints is something altogether different to this…
FROM ST AUGUSTINE – THE CITY OF GOD…. (End of Book VIII)
But, Nevertheless, we do not build temples, or ordain priests, rites, and sacrifices for these same martyrs; for they are not our gods, but their God is our God. Certainly we honour their reliquaries, as the memorials of holy men of God who strove for truth even to the death of their bodies, that the true religion might be made known, and false and ficticious religions exposed….But who ever heard of a priest of the faithful, standing at an altar built for the honour and worship of God over the holy body of some martyr, say in the prayers, I offer to thee a sacrifice, O Peter, or O Paul, or O Cyprian? for it is to God that sacrifices are offered at their tombs – with holy angels in celestial honour; and the reason why we pay such honours to their memory is that by doing so we may give thanks to the true God for their victories, and by calling them afresh to remembrance, may stir ourselves up to imitate them by seeking to obtain like crowns and palms, calling to our help that same God on whom they called. Therefore, whatever honours the religious may pay in the places of martyrs, they are but honours rendered to their memory, not sacred rites or sacrifices offered to dead men as gods…
God is the Life-Giver for every rational creature.
God is to the world of spiritual intellect,
what the sun is to the sensory world,
and will manifest divinity in our minds
to the degree that we are purified.”
St Gregory of Nazianzus
Western thinking espescially after the enlightenment (but even before), tended towards the use of rational philosophical process – a way of thinking that crept into theological reflection in the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and Thomism for example. However, a light radiating from the east reflecting the glory of God embraced the profoundness of mystery when considering Divinity and the grace given to the Church in its sacraments. Whilst the great theologians and Church Fathers of the early Christian centuries brought about a way of life and thinking that far surpassed the platonic philosophers who excelled amongst the philosophical schools, they were still content to embrace the mystery of the Ineffable and Unnaproacheable God. The incomprehensibility of the Trinity could only be known in the revelation of God, personified in the incarnation of the Word – Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, and the life of these Holy Saints was such that they lived ascetic and holy lives spent in awe at the majesty of God which is clearly reflected in their writings. Although these writings are not considered as ‘Scripture’, they reflect a profound encounter of God and deserve to be read to inspire those of us who would attempt to follow their example with a heart for Christ and a love for God who is salvation…
The following gem comes from the austere preacher and Bishop of Northern Italy St Ambrose who had great impact on St Augustine of Hippo…
This quote is dedicated to Fr Youhanna, Fr Moussa, Fr David and Fr James whose love and service to our mission has been greatly appreciated…
“Preserve then my sons, that friendship you have begun with your brothers, for nothing in the world is more beautiful than that. It is indeed a comfort in this life to have one to whom you can open your ear, with whom you can share secrets and to whom you can entrust the secrets of your heart. It is a comfort to have a trusty person by your side who will rejoice with you in prosperity, sympathise in troubles, encourage in persecution. What good friends those Hebrew children were whom the flames of the fiery furnace did not separate from the love of each other!”
In his book on the ‘City of God’ St Augustine challenges the contemporary paganism of Rome and its many religious cults and further in his exposition of philosophical thought proves the superiority of Orthodox Christianity. Writing to those whose history was forged by the Roman idyllic empire, St Augustine pointed them to the celestial city and the Kingdom of Christ in a time when they were looking for someone to blame for the demise of a once great empire…St. Augustine concludes his first book with a stern warning for those who would assume the outward appearance of purity in their religious faith by attending liturgical rites and worship of the Church but live a double standard life, and as such gives an ancient precedent of showing the falsehood evident in modern times of a costless and obligation free salvation, that erroneous notion of once saved always saved…
“So too, as long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognised; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may to-day see thronging the Churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theatres with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, who are destined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed with until the last judgement effect their separation. I now proceed to speak, as God shall help me, of the rise, progress and end of these two cities; and what I write, I write for the glory of the city of God, that, being placed in comparison with the other, it may shine a brighter lustre.”
Conclusion of Book I of the City of God
May our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ protect us all from the traps of the enemy…
Today the Coptic Orthodox Church remembers the martyrdom of the apostle of Egypt, St Mark the Evangelist. Born in Cyrene in Northern Africa near Pentapolis to Aristobulous and Mary, he was born of the tribe of Levi and was brought up as a learned student of Hebrew and Greek. His name was John Mark (Mark being his surname Acts 12:12) and the Lord Christ spoke of him when he told the disciples to go into the city to a certain man and say to him, ‘My time is at hand, I will keep the passover at your house with my Disciples.’ (Mat 26:18) His family house was the first Church where the passover was eaten, they hid their after the crucifixion and in its upper room the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost.The family emigrated to Jerusalem where St Peter was married to a cousin of Aristobulous, and Mark visited Peter’s house often to be instructed in the faith. Once Aristobulous and Mark were travelling through the wilderness of the Jordan and encountered a ravenous lion and lioness, where St Mark interceeded and called on the name of the Lord Christ for protection and the lion dropped dead. His father marvelled and was baptised.
St Mark was one of the younger seventy disciples of the Lord who preached the kingdom, and was always in the background in the Gospel accounts of the Lord Christ. He was also a relative of St Barnabas, and after the ascension accompanied him and St Paul on evangelical missions through Antioch, Selucia, Cyprus, Salamis, and Perga Pamphylia where he left and returned to Jerusalem. After the departure of the Holy Saint Barnabas, at the commandment of the Lord Christ St Mark came to Afrikia, Berka, and the Five Western Cities.
After he entered the city of Alexandria his sandal broke and he took it to the cobbler, Anianus, to repair it. While he was repairing it he pierced his finger and cried out ‘EIS THEOS – The One God!” So St Mark healed the cobbler miraculously by the power of Christ and Anianus went on to become a Bishop of the Orthodox Church.
There is a historical background to this event that we should consider. The land of Egypt was at this moment prepared to receive the true knowledge of God and the Orthodox faith. The scientific prowess of the ancient Egyptians was immense, considering the engineering and technical skills behind the construction of the pyramids, their mathematics and philosophy came to the forefront of the world and the great library of Alexandria contained the largest collection of scientific and historical record the ancient world had ever known, and much ancient history was lost when it was destroyed. Nevertheless, the scientific knowledge of the ancient pharoh’s was not considered detrimental to religious knowledge but supplementary to it.
“In any case, the fact is that the ancient Egyptians put their scientific abilities at the disposal of the religious thinking (building pyramids, embalming etc). It had influenced the Copts. They looked to science not as an enemy of religion or contrary to it, but rather that science acts in favour of religion. Therefore the school of Alexandria (left) opened its doors to the scholars and philosophers, believing science and philosophy could serve the true spiritual life.” (Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty “Introduction to The Coptic Orthodox Church”)
In fact, Fr Tadros Yacoub Malaty notes that many of the ancient philosophers believed in one supreme being, the best example being king Ikhnaton (1383-1365BC). Further, the ancient Egyptians had contemplated much on afterlife and the implications of spiritual knowledge and although of human construct the best of their efforts is seen in the example of king Ikhnaton led to the ultimate truth of accepting One God.
What does all this have to do with St Mark? Well, St Mark is well known as an evangelist and author of the Gospel, he is also known as a missionary and also as a martyr. What we often to easily forget is his eminence as a theologian, scholar, and we should consider his holiness and great rhetorical skills as he the Beholder of Divinity related the power of the risen Christ – which he had witnessed firsthand. St Mark entered an eminent scientific and philosophical arena in Alexandria of the worlds finest thinkers, rife with the schools of Greek philosophy and even the theology of the Jews, whose efforts some two hundred years earlier produced the Septuagint which is received as Holy Scripture by the Orthodox Church and confirmed at its councils years later. In fact the learned Jewish philosopher Philo had even dabbled in the allegorical method of study which was to be confirmed by the Lord Christ and the Fathers of the Church. St. Mark was able to confirm and proclaim the truth of the resurrection of Christ, he catechized and established Christian truth and the Lord worked miracles by his blessed apostolic hands. Yet his preaching was able to confirm the wisdom of Christianity and its ability to answer the great philosophical debaters of Alexandria. We should consider that what he bore was not of human construct but rather Divine Revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He bore witness to the Holy Trinity the One Divinity. This revelation and its study is the purest of sciences as the Book of Sirach pronounces in chapter 39. St Mark was well placed to witness to Christ from what he witnessed first hand, from his knowledge of the Law and the prophets and one wonders at the influence of St Peter, St Barnabas and the eminent New Testament theologian St Paul. His teaching and holy example lead to the foundation of the Alexandrian School of Theology to promote the pure science and the fact that while Orthodox Christianity is a faith of discipleship involving mystery and the revelation of God, it is still more than able to interact and even challenge the greatest philosophical questions humans can come up with. This school whose foundation was laid by St Mark (St Jerome) was to go on to uphold and defend Orthodox truth and become the most influential theological force in the exposition of the faith once deliviered and confirming Orthodoxy, with such renowned saints as St Diddymus, St Cyril and St Athanasius. Nonetheless, St Mark’s impact was so great that he angered his opponents to the point that for a time he left the city having ordained ministers and Bishops he travelled to other parts of Africa continuing on in the evangelical spirit.
Upon his final return to Alexandria, St Mark witnessed that the Church founded had grown under the care and patronage of St Anianus and they built a Church at Bokalia (place of the cows) east of Alexandria by the sea shore. In the year 68 AD, St Mark was celebrating the feast of the resurrection which coincided with a pagan festival to Syrabis, and a pagan mob sought the life of St Mark and binding him with thick rope they dragged him with cruelty through the streets cutting and tearing his flesh leaving a trail of blood behind him. Bound, they threw him into prison that night. An angel of the Lord appeared to him and strengthened his resolve ‘O Mark, the good servant, rejoice for your name has been written in the Book of LIfe and you have been counted among the congregation of the saints.’ After this the Lord Christ himself appeared to the holy Saint giving him peace. St Mark rejoiced in his heart.
The next day he was again tortured and dragged through the streets until finally he delivered up his soul into the hands of the Lord. He received the crowns of martyrdom, apostolicism, evangelism, and virginity. The pagans still not satisfied in their hatred sought to burn his Holy Relics and gathered firewood to burn his body, yet on the way to heaven St Mark saw a severe storm and heavy rain dash their wicked desires and the Christians took his holy remains and buried him in the Church at Bokalia. After some centuries and journeys, his relics reside today at the Coptic Orhodox Cathedral in Alexandria (left).
St Mark came to Egypt to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah 19, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of Egypt.’ His holy example lead to the growth of the first Christians who had witnessed his miracles and heard his eyewitness accounts of the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ. He saw many catechized and baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity. He founded the school of theology to combat heresy and promote Orthodox witness. His ascetic example of discipleship and service lead him to forsake his life for the name of Christ to the point of martyrdom, an example for the generations of confessors and martyrs and ascetic anchorite monks whose lives followed his holy example. St Mark came to Egypt full of the Holy Spirit and found the fields ripe for harvest as the ancients had prepared for his arrival and the message of Christ in their learned reflection. He planted the seed of faith amongst the people by his teaching and exposition of the faith once delivered, and he then watered that seed by the blood he shed in his martyrdom, and he showed the power of Christ not only in his life but in the miraculous preservation of his Holy Relics which have blessed many generations up to today. The seed he watered by his blood has become a golden chain of holy saints and martyrs, great theologians and simple holy men, fools for Christ and has under the current guidance of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III become a blessing to all nations.
I wish we could all increase our love, devotion and appreciation of St Mark, to ask his prayers to encourage us to struggle to follow his example as we bear witness to the Resurrected Lord, so that the first Patriarch of Alexandria would reflect the Glory of God onto us from heaven as he did when he walked on earth, may his prayers be with us all Amen.