In the annals of the early Church we have a substantial and important record of the beliefs and practice of early Christians, as well as the incredible witness they provided to the Faith through evangelisation and martyrdom. Persecution of Christians was rife in the Church during the first three centuries, and one of the earliest to bear witness to their faith in this way was Saint Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp is important for several reasons: firstly, according to Tertullian, he was a disciple of Saint John the Evangelist, and thus bore direct witness to the faith of the Apostles.
Secondly, he made many converts amongst the Gnostics because of his personal holiness and witness to the apostolic teaching, and through his martyrdom, gained even greater credibility amongst the people. Thirdly (and this is linked to the second point), the description of his martyrdom provides us with very early evidence for not just the veneration of saints, but the preservation and veneration of their relics. Here are the relevant passages, just after Saint Polycarp had breathed his last breath:
‘But the jealous and envious Evil One, who always opposes the family of the righteous, and had noticed the sublimity of his martyrdom and the unspotted record of his life since its earliest days, now saw him in the act of having a crown of immortality set upon his head, and bearing off a prize which none could dispute. He therefore proceeded to do his best to arrange that at least we should not get possession of his mortal remains, although numbers of us were anxious to do this and to claim our share in the hallowed relics…
…However, when the centurion saw that the Jews were spoiling for a quarrel, he had the body fetched out publicly, as is their usage, and burnt. So, after all, we did gather up his bones – more precious to us than jewels and finer than pure gold – and we laid them to rest in a spot suitable for the purpose. Then we shall assemble, as occasion allows, with glad rejoicings; and with the Lord’s permission we shall celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.’
Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (1987), pp.130-131, Penguin.
This is, outside of the New Testament, the earliest account (c.155 AD) of Christian martyrdom that we have. In it we see already the tradition of celebrating the day of martyrdom as a ‘birthday’ – i.e.; the feast day of the saint – and we have (what, in the account is presented as a commonplace activity) the gathering of relics from the saint – ‘more precious to us than jewels’ – for veneration and resting in a particular place.
This should not be surprising, for in the New Testament itself we find that even cloths that had come into contact with Saint Paul were being used to heal and drive out demons (c.f.; Acts 19:11-12). In the Old Testament as well, the bones of Elishah were able to revive someone on the point of death (c.f.; 2 Kings 13:20-21). All this stems from the incarnational character of Christianity – God became man, and therefore does not despise the things of this world; He uses them as a means of transmitting grace to us, as He knows that we are not disembodied spirits but flesh and blood, and need a material contact to engage the entirety of our beings (this is pre-eminently true of the sacraments of course). The disavowing of this aspect of Christianity suggests to me a certain gnostic element within the DNA of Protestantism – a belief that we should only be able to go to God directly ‘in the spirit’ without the medium of material things.
Furthermore, the veneration of saints and their relics is deeply bound up with a proper doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ. If one believes that through baptism we are incorporated into Christ, and really become, in some mystical manner, a part of His Body, then we are thereby also bound to everyone else that is ‘in’ Christ. So the injunctions to pray for one another (e.g.; 1 Timothy 2:1-5; Ephesians 6:18-19) take on an even greater significance when we consider that this relationship, through our shared incorporation in Christ, goes to a deeper level, where not even death can break the bond between us.
Saint James also writes (James 5:16) that ‘the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects’ – well, who are more righteous than those in heaven, who have been fully sanctified and whose relationship with God knows no impediment? By virtue of the gift given to the Church to discern and pronounce infallibly whether certain people have attained sainthood (which of course does not mean that those without canonisation have not!), and the deep bond we share with all the saints, it then makes perfect sense to ask them to pray for us. After all, we are called to pray in Jesus’ name (which is another way of saying that we should pray with the same heart and mind as Jesus, who always does the will of the Father), and who is closer to the will of the Lord than those who are wholly sanctified and live in perfect harmony with Him?
As for veneration, this is just another way of saying that we love and honour the saints for the quality of their love for God and the magnificent example of their lives. We love and honour people on earth all the time – our parents, our spouses, certain role models that we look up to, etc. Thus again, if it is right and fitting to honour ordinary people, it is even more the case that we should do so to those who have attained the crown of glory. The example of Saint Polycarp’s martyrdom provides a great witness to the fact that veneration of the saints and their relics, as well as asking for their intercession, was not something that bothered the early Christians at all, just as it doesn’t bother Catholics (or Orthodox) now. It is perfectly natural for a religion centred on the Incarnation, and perfectly congruent with life in the Body of Christ, which binds us together deeper than any earthly bond, and transcends space and time. Saint Polycarp, pray for us!