On Tuesday, October 25, 2011, the relics of St. John of Shanghai & San Francisco were re-vested by the assembled clergy of the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. I was privileged to be present at and to participate in this rite and would like to share it with the members of our diocese and my parishioners.
The relics of incorrupt saints are re-vested periodically. The re-vesting is an opportunity to examine the condition of the relics and the reliquary that houses them, and is an important part of our care for the saint. Some saints are re-vested frequently (for example, St. Spyridon’s slippers are famously replaced every year as they become worn); others are re-vested less frequently. In the case of St. John, this is the first re-vesting of the Saint to take place since his Glorification seventeen years ago.
The rite was announced to us during the morning session of our Pastoral Conference, during which Archimandrite Irenei (Steenberg) described the rubrics for the service. At Vladyka Kyrill’s suggestion, most of the clergy fasted from lunch that day to prepare for the service. All the clergy had Confession during the evening Vigil and exchanged forgiveness with each other.
Present (if I counted correctly) were the Archbishop, 23 priests and hieromonks, four protodeacons and deacons, a schema-monk, and two readers. Several of the clergy had been present during the original inspection, translation, and/or vesting of the relics prior to the glorification of the Saint in 1994.
The rite began about 8:30 pm. The doors of the Cathedral were locked, and the Moleben Before the Beginning Any Good Work was served before the relics of the Saint. This was followed by the Magnification (Velichanie), after which the clergy venerated the relics. Archimandrite Irenei gave a brief exhortation, reminding us that while none of us was worthy to participate, our love and duty to the Saint required us to fulfill our obedience.
Pre-assigned groups of clergy then moved the reliquary and its stand from the shrine to the center of the cathedral, behind a long table covered with (and placed upon) sheets of white linen. All the priests took their places on either side of the reliquary by rank, with the Archbishop upon his cathedra at the head, and their hands were washed by the readers. The deacons ascended the amvon, and censed continually during the service.
Each priest had an assigned task in the divesting and vesting, according to rank (my particular duty was to remove, and later replace, the Saint’s pectoral cross). The tasks closest the Saint’s person (e.g., podriznik, podriasnik, and the like) were performed by the monastics. Besides assigned specific tasks, one would help as needed at any point assistance was required. Clergy not involved in particular steps would move to cliros, where the moleben for Saint was chanted.
After the reliquary was opened, the Saint’s relics were inspected, and no problems noted. The relics were transferred by six senior protopriests to the linen-covered table, and the divesting begun. While this was taking place, other priests cleaned the interior and seals of the reliquary. Any particles from the old vestments and relics were carefully placed in a separate reliquary box provided for this purpose. The old vestments themselves were likewise collected for future veneration by the faithful. When the divesting was complete, the relics were washed with rose water, and the vesting began.
It is difficult to describe the compunctionate and grace-filled atmosphere that pervaded the Cathedral. While everyone was anxious to perform the rite properly and with the greatest of care, a feeling of peace was shared by all. Tears were seen on more than one face. The service itself seemed ‘out of time’. Estimated to take about ninety minutes, the rite actually required three-and-one-half hours – but no one seemed to notice.
When the vesting was complete, the Saint’s relics were reverently placed back into the reliquary, which was then sealed and returned to the shrine, after which the Saint was venerated a final time by the assembled clergy and monks.
An interesting observation was made on Wednesday morning at the Hierarchal Liturgy. Many of the clergy had served ten hours on Tuesday and were approaching twenty hours of fasting (as the rite ended after midnight and all were to receive Communion the following morning). We older clergy, especially, should have been on our last legs at that point, but no one felt more than a slight tiredness. The grace of the Saint continued to carry us through the day.
I think none of us who participated in the rite shall ever forget it, but will carry the memory of this personal encounter with the Saint for the rest of our lives.
Wondrous is God in His saints! Holy Hierarch Father John, pray to God for us!
Priest James BAGLIEN
St. Martin the Merciful Church,
Photos by Fr. Peter Perekrestov. For the complete photo reportage, see: photos of the rite.
The Archdiocese of Western America, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad