Today’s Gospel included the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak:
“As he went, the people pressed round him. And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and had spent all her living upon physicians and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased.”
I have heard multiple sermons preached on this Gospel. I have almost never heard a sermon preached on the physicality of her action, in the USA. I suspect that this is because of the majority Protestant population that is found here. But, notice that there is grace given as she touches Jesus’ cloak. This is actually not as either unreasonable nor as uncommon as we would hear here in the USA. From the Old Testament through the New Testament, you can read that touching holy objects can communicate grace, and sometimes judgment.
Thus, one of the first touches that we have of something is during King David’s time.
“And when they came to Nachon’s threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God.”
Another instance is found in the Book of Judges.
“Then Elisha died, and they buried him. And the raiding bands from Moab invaded the land in the spring of the year. 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.”
The Gospel from today reports another such instance. But, it continues on into the New Testament.
“God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to those who were ill, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.”
Saint Paul speaks about the physical effects of the Lord’s Supper. Just like in the Old Testament, the touching of the Ark of the Covenant, or in the case of the New Testament, this mishandling of the Body and Blood of Christ, may have serious and significant consequences for those who do so. Even in the New Testament, the consequences for mishandling may include death.
“For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.”
These quotes do not even include the fact that physical actions are used by God to bring us into Christianity and maintain us in it: Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I could keep going with a while longer about the physicality that is part and parcel of God’s dispensing of grace to this day. For instance, think of Saint Peter’s shadow.
In America, we tend to relegate the physicality of Christianity to some type of superstition. Yet, from the Old Testament through the New Testament, there is a clear testimony that objects can be (or become) consecrated, and that the grace and/or judgment of God can be communicated through those objects. There is no evidence that the post-New Testament believers thought that this had ended when the last of the Apostles died. Rather, until the Reformation, there is a continuing belief that God continued to work in Church History in the same way in which he worked in the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Unfortunately, the Reformation was not simply a reaction against the inappropriate actions of Rome. It was that. However, it was more than that. The Reformation was also part of the Enlightenment emphasis on rationality and skepticism. The beliefs that many of the Reformers held concerning Popish superstitions often had more to do with Enlightenment skeptical thinking than with a clear analysis of Scripture on this point. Frankly, they had to come up with a theology that was not really found before, which was that all the actions that I mentioned above disappeared when the last Apostle died. That is, somehow for several thousand years God had worked in a very physical way, but that had all ended with the death of the last of the Apostles. Here is the problem. That is nowhere stated in either Scripture or Holy Tradition. It is a made up doctrine. Pentecostals are closer to the truth when they claim that the miracles of the New Testament are still alive today. And, those Pentecostals who send out prayer cloths are actually more in accord with Scripture than the rational Protestants who declare all such practices as being somehow primitive.
The Orthodox belief on relics is based on the theology of God acting through physical things. Just like Jesus’ robe, Saint Paul’s handkerchief and aprons, and Saint Peter’s shadow, we believe that items that have been in contact with a saint are able to minister God’s grace to us. Like the person thrown on Elisha’s bones was resurrected, so we believe that the bodies of saints are able to give us healing and strength. It is not a guaranteed result. God is free to do what he wishes. But, it is a recognition of one of the ways in which God works among us.
The Orthodox belief on the Eucharist is based on the same set of Scriptures. The Orthodox belief on holy oil, etc., is based on additional Scriptures from Saint James, etc. They are also based on the testimony of the saints, as found in Holy Tradition. The Church is based on Scripture and Holy Tradition, and they state that our faith is very physical.