Processional Stations for Saints

Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey.

The saints tend to be neglected among some Reformed Christians today, but this was not always so. Take for example the Second Helvetic Confession:

At the same time we do not despise the saints or think basely of them. For we acknowledge them to be living members of Christ and friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world. Hence we love them as brothers, and also honour them; yet not with any kind of worship but by an honourable opinion of them and just praises of them. We also imitate them. For with ardent longings and supplications we earnestly desire to be imitators of their faith and virtues, to share eternal salvation with them, to dwell eternally with them in the presence of God, and to rejoice with them in Christ. And in this respect we approve of the opinion of St Augustine in De Vera Religione: ‘Let not our religion be the cult of men who have died. For if they have lived holy lives, they are not to be thought of as seeking such honours; on the contrary, they want us to worship him by whose illumination they rejoice that we are fellow-servants of his merits. They are therefore to be honoured by the way of imitation, but not to be adored in a religious manner,’ etc.

It is not against this principle for a procession to pause at a holy martyr’s grave or at a side altar that honours his memory with verses of Scripture that describe his piety. To be sure, so to pause is a kind of cæremony, and some of the Reformed believe such cæremonies forbidden because there is neither præcept nor example in holy Scripture. Nevertheless, to affirm that a cæremony can be indifferent, and not forbidden merely because it is not commanded by holy Scripture, I call upon the witness of Heinrich Bullinger (quoted by W. J. Torrance Kirby):

Though I would rather no ceremonies, excepting such as are necessary, should be obtruded upon the church, yet I must confess in the man time that regulations respecting them, though possibly not altogether necessary, and sometimes, it may be, useless, ought not forthwith to be condemned as impious, and to excite disorder and schism in the church; seeing that they are not of a superstitious character, and also that in their very nature they are matters of indifference.

And lawfulness of such a practice I maintain even in the case of an altar under which is displayed in some fashion the remains of a dead saint, for it is not idolatry. Though I find it naturally modest to leave the body itself interred, and not for lurid fascination to have the bones open to the public view, I do not think it objectionable to have a saint buried beneath and his effigy visible under the table, with sculpted or painted angels surrounding the burial place in token of God’s regard for his saints.

The crown of St Stephen of Hungary.

Nor is it improper, I think, to show in public one saint’s chains, another’s crown, another’s cloak. These, indeed, are less likely to be abused than the physical remains of the saint himself, and sometimes apter to say in what works the saint’s holiness was manifest. Unlike a saint’s body, moreover, these can be divided and given to believers in other parts of the world as a sign of fellowship in Christ and common reverence for the same saint. Such uses, I think, are not to be held unlawful, but to be held in honour as historical signs of the power of God across the ages, exercised not only in the time of Christ’s ministry on earth but also thereafter. Like a place of burial containing a saint’s body, these more moveable relics are physical testimony of the love of God.

For a relic can be, rather than an object of superstition, a memento of a saintly life, as the image of Caesar on a coin is a memento of his authority, and a skull a memento of death. The Second Helvetic Confession says, ‘Those ancient saints seemed to have sufficiently honoured their dead when they decently committed their remains to the earth after the spirit had ascended on high. And they thought that the most noble relics of their ancestors were their virtues, their doctrine, and their faith. Moreover, as they commend these “relics” when praising the dead, so they strive to copy them during their life on earth.’ If a physical relic is to be seen at all, then, its right use is to encourage the viewer to imitate the saint as the saint once imitated Christ, in order that he may gain a deeper sense of what Christ promises to all who believe in him, and will accomplish in us through the Holy Ghost. It is useless to look to saints as giving us power of themselves, but it is most useful to be reminded of the power God has demonstrated in them. It is for this purpose that one may see a relic and therein have physically present, for our meditation, an outward reminiscence of the holy life to which God has called us all. Though it is nothing to him who knows nothing of the saint, it is a help to him who knows the story of the saint but has not thought of it in a while.

Thus I hold that the sight of a saints’s grave or his image, if not worshipped, can be ædifying. And if seeing can be ædifying, then so can pausing at the sight to remember what it means. So, as a cæremony not only lawful but also not infrequently ædifying, especially in these times when the powers that be (God himself excepted) are increasingly opposed to the Lord’s ways, a procession’s pausing in remembrance of a departed saint should be observed with reverence, even though the Scriptures do not record its use. Though to some it may seem Romish at first, especially when it involves saints’ relics, it is nevertheless justified upon mere Christian principles and not to be dismissed as sectarian idolatry. Indeed, it may shape the kind of piety that we need, a piety strong in the remembrance of what the Lord accomplishes in us by faith.

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4 responses to “Processional Stations for Saints

  1. Hard to see how this would not lead to idolatry within a generation or two.

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    • Since men are so prone to manufacturing idols, the adiaphora would need to be regulated pretty cautiously. In order to direct the focus toward the perfection of Christ and the work of the Holy Ghost, one useful thing would be to keep books written by or about the saint, that the attention that turned momentarily toward the saint’s body might turn toward the saint’s life, not as a source of power (as a creed is not a source of authority in itself) but as an exemplum of God’s power (as a creed is an articulation of biblical authority).

      What do you think the slide toward idolatry would look like? What steps would it take?

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      • I think it would quickly turn to prayer to the saint, putting the saint in the place of Christ, and thinking the saint is a source of local healing powers. The history of the early Church shows this in action.

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        • I think well-written collects, whose emphasis is on the work of Christ, can habituate the people to orthodox prayers and keep them away from ascribing to the saint what belongs to Christ alone.

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