Recently some of the relics of St. Nicholas were brought to Russia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas). Thousands of the faithful lined up in a kilometer-long queue to kiss them and kneel before them. How should we react to this tradition to worship the relics, because it looks to be clearly idolatry? Do you know how the Orthodox Church explains it? It happens around the world where there is an Orthodox Church. Recently, one of the adherents of the Orthodox Church told me that this is not idolatry, but “honoring.” Is it possible that some see it this way and the great majority see it differently?
Whether this is clear-cut idolatry is perhaps somewhat debatable. Are these people actually worshiping the relics? Maybe yes and maybe no. Probably yes. I am not sure we need to completely judge on this issue. What this clearly is, and what you can stand fast on is that this is clearly superstition and it does not bring honor to Jesus or to Christianity. First of all, these are almost certainly not the remains of the Christian father known as “Saint” Nicholas from the late third and early fourth century. This is a fraud. Mark Twain once said sarcastically that if we took all the pieces of wood claimed to be relics of the true cross of Jesus we could build an entire barn. This was probably not an exaggeration. Worshipers at Santiago de Compostelo in Spain venerate what they believe to be the bones of the apostle James. There is approximately zero chance that these relics are the bones of James. Besides, even if they were, what possible biblical value could be placed on touching these bones? Kissing them is creepy at best and blasphemous at worst. How, biblically, could we justify honoring the bones of a dead person? This is an embarrassment. Such superstitious activity is one of the reason that Islam was able to overcome Orthodox Christianity in the seventh through tenth centuries. Muslims rejected such superstitions, whereas Orthodoxy embraced them.
So, these worshipers, although perhaps sincere, are really making fools of themselves and of Christianity in my opinion, as these bones are bogus–they are a fraud. And besides, if we were to ask Nicholas if he would want people to venerate his bones, he would surely beg that we not do this. He would have asked us to venerate Jesus, not a bunch of dried up bones.
My answer is that for some this is idolatry, plain and simple. However, being fair, for others it is veneration, not idolatry/worship. Accusing all who visit these relics of idolatry may not be fair. The Orthodox Church officially calls such acts veneration, not worship. Technically, your orthodox friend is correct. Technically, this is not some sort of heretical worship of bones, at least according to the official teaching of the Orthodox Church. However, it is naive to think that most Orthodox believers do not in fact worship the bones in their hearts. The fact is that most of those in the queue probably are practicing idolatry.
But, applying the Golden Rule, we should give the benefit of the doubt–we should assume the best of those who wait in these long lines to touch these relics. But even if we give the benefit of the doubt, we can criticize these actions on at least two grounds. 1. These “relics” are almost without question a fraud. They are not the remains of Nicholas. To act as if they were is to dishonor Jesus in front of the world who are well aware of the fraud. 2. There is absolutely no biblical warrant for paying attention to the physical remains of dead former Christians, no matter how godly they were. Any true Christian, if they could communicate with us from the dead, would beg us not to pay attention to their physical remains. They would point us to Jesus, not to the bones of dead Christians.
By the way, Nicholas, known as “Saint” Nicholas was a real person, and he was a true hero of early Christianity. My sister is an Orthodox nun and she is a big fan of Nicholas, and for good reason. In fact, when she was taken into her order of nuns, she was known as Mother Nicole in honor of Nicholas. I like to think that my sister would agree with me that touching the bones of Nicholas, even if they were not a fraud, would not do honor to either Nicholas or to Jesus.