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§ 27. Rise of the Worship of Martyrs and Relics.


I. Sources.


In addition to the works quoted in §§ 12 and 26, comp. Euseb. H. E. IV. 15; De Mart. Palaest. c. 7. Clem. Alex.: Strom. IV. p. 596. Orig.: Exhort. ad mart. c. 30 and 50. In Num. Kom. X. 2. Tertull.: De cor. mil. c. 3; De Resurr. carn. c. 43. Cypr.: De lapsis, c. 17; Epist. 34 and 57. Const. Apost.: l. 8.


II. Works.


C. Sagittarius: De natalitiis mart. Jen. 1696.

Schwabe: De insigni veneratione, quae obtinuit erga martyres in primit. eccl. Altd. 1748.


In thankful remembrance of the fidelity of this "noble army of martyrs," in recognition of the unbroken communion of saints, and in prospect of the resurrection of the body, the church paid to the martyrs, and even to their mortal remains, a veneration, which was in itself well-deserved and altogether natural, but which early exceeded the scriptural limit, and afterwards degenerated into the worship of saints and relics. The heathen hero-worship silently continued in the church and was baptized with Christian names.

In the church of Smyrna, according to its letter of the year 155, we find this veneration still in its innocent, childlike form: "They [the Jews] know not, that we can neither ever forsake Christ, who has suffered for the salvation of the whole world of the redeemed, nor worship another. Him indeed we adore (προσκυνοῦμεν) as the Son of God; but the martyrs we love as they deserve (ἀγαπῶμεν ἀξίως) for their surpassing love to their King and Master, as we wish also to be their companions and fellow-disciples."6868    Martyrium Polycarpi, cap. 17; Comp. Eusebius, H. E. IV. 15.7 The day of the death of a martyr was called his heavenly birth-day,6969    Ἡμέρα γενέθλιος, γενέθλια, natales, natalitia martyrum.8 and was celebrated annually at his grave (mostly in a cave or catacomb), by prayer, reading of a history of his suffering and victory, oblations, and celebration of the holy supper.

But the early church did not stop with this. Martyrdom was taken, after the end of the second century, not only as a higher grade of Christian virtue, but at the same time as a baptism of fire and blood,7070    Lavacrum sanguinis, βάπτισμα διὰ πυρός, comp. Matt. 20:22; Luke 12:50; Mark 10:39.9 an ample substitution for the baptism of water, as purifying from sin, and as securing an entrance into heaven. Origen even went so far as to ascribe to the sufferings of the martyrs an atoning virtue for others, an efficacy like that of the sufferings of Christ, on the authority of such passages as 2 Cor. 12:15; Col. 1:24; 2 Tim. 4:6. According to Tertullian, the martyrs entered immediately into the blessedness of heaven, and were not required, like ordinary Christians, to pass through the intermediate state. Thus was applied the benediction on those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, Matt. 5:10–12. Hence, according to Origen and Cyprian, their prayers before the throne of God came to be thought peculiarly efficacious for the church militant on earth, and, according to an example related by Eusebius, their future intercessions were bespoken shortly before their death.

In the Roman Catacombs we find inscriptions where the departed are requested to pray for their living relatives and friends.

The veneration thus shown for the persons of the martyrs was transferred in smaller measure to their remains. The church of Smyrna counted the bones of Polycarp more precious than gold or diamonds.7171    It is worthy of note, however, that some of the startling phenomena related in the Martyrium Polycarpi by the congregation of Smyrna are omitted in the narrative of Eusebius (IV. 15), and may be a later interpolation.0 The remains of Ignatius were held in equal veneration by the Christians at Antioch. The friends of Cyprian gathered his blood in handkerchiefs, and built a chapel over his tomb.

A veneration frequently excessive was paid, not only to the deceased martyrs, but also the surviving confessors. It was made the special duty of the deacons to visit and minister to them in prison. The heathen Lucian in his satire, "De morte Peregrini," describes the unwearied care of the Christians for their imprisoned brethren; the heaps of presents brought to them; and the testimonies of sympathy even by messengers from great distances; but all, of course, in Lucian’s view, out of mere good-natured enthusiasm. Tertullian the Montanist censures the excessive attention of the Catholics to their confessors. The libelli pacis, as they were called—intercessions of the confessors for the fallen—commonly procured restoration to the fellowship of the church. Their voice had peculiar weight in the choice of bishops, and their sanction not rarely overbalanced the authority of the clergy. Cyprian is nowhere more eloquent than in the praise of their heroism. His letters to the imprisoned confessors in Carthage are full of glorification, in a style somewhat offensive to our evangelical ideas. Yet after all, he protests against the abuse of their privileges, from which he had himself to suffer, and earnestly exhorts them to a holy walk; that the honor they have gained may not prove a snare to them, and through pride and carelessness be lost. He always represents the crown of the confessor and the martyr as a free gift of the grace of God, and sees the real essence of it rather in the inward disposition than in the outward act. Commodian conceived the whole idea of martyrdom in its true breadth, when he extended it to all those who, without shedding their blood, endured to the end in love, humility, and patience, and in all Christian virtue.



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