DISCOVERY OF THE HOLY RELICS OF SAINT MAXIM THE GREEK
by S. Beliaev
Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, September 1996.
The local council of the Russian Orthodox church that met in the Holy Trinity-Saint Sergius lavra 6-9 June 1988 added Saint Maxim the Greek to the roster of saints. The acts of the council state: "Thus, fully convinced of the truth and reliability of the miracles performed by the prayers of these ascetics and taking note of the numerous forms of their Christian piety, their supreme spirituality, and service in the church, the council determines: 'It pleased the Holy Spirit and us' to include in the roster of the holy people of God for veneration in the Russian church the following champions of Christian piety . . . Saint Maxim the Greek (1470-1556), who is honored locally as a holy man of Radonezh, miracleworker, monk-ascetic, and master of the monastic life. As a prisoner and victim of many years of imprisonment, he maintained steadfastness in matters of the true faith and personal humility in his life of devotion. As the author of various compositions the saint stated the divine truths of Orthodox doctrines and, as a spiritual teacher, he elucidated the traditions of the holy fathers."
This conciliar determination culminated the centuries-long attempt to exonerate and emancipate Saint Maxim the Greek from the slanders heaped upon him during his lifetime. This attempt began in the last years of Maxim's life when he was exiled to the Holy Trinity Saint Sergius lavra where he enjoyed deserved respect and honor. At the end of the sixteenth century his holy relics were attested, from which many miracles were achieved, and a troparion and kondakion were composed as well as a service. Somewhat later iconographic representations of him appeared. In reality by the end of the sixteenth century St. Maxim the Greek was being honored as a local saint.
There was only one outstanding question for the council of 1988, the whereabouts of the holy relics of Saint Maxim. The acts of the council state: "His pure remains are buried at the northwestern wall of the church of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity lavra." But at the moment when the council decided on his canonization and until the beginning of the excavation of the grave site of Saint Maxim, there was no indication on the surface.
But it had not always been that way. It is possible that at the end of the sixteenth century there was the first chapel over the grave, which later was frequently reconstructed and enlarged. In the reconstructed form it lasted until the 1930s. However as a result of the storm that broke over the Russian Orthodox church there remained on the surface of the land no traces of the structure over the saint's grave.
In view of the absence of a clearly demarcated spot of burial of the holy remains of Saint Maxim the Greek and several other newly glorified saints, the local council of 1988 restricted itself to the adoption of the following formula: "Their pure remains, whereever they may be, are to be considered holy relics." But now the time of the discovery of the holy relics of Saint Maxim the Greek has arrived.
Since the location of the burial of Maxim was known only approximately, it was necessary to conduct archaeological excavations. The blessing of the primate of the Russian Orthodox church was granted for conducting them.
Before the excavations began, on 24 June 1996, a prayer service to Saint Maxim was conducted in the church of the Holy Spirit in the lavra. The service was performed by Archimandrit Kirill Pavlov of the lavra, and monks of the lavra and student of the Moscow Ecclesiastical schools and archaeologists participated. Then the excavations began. Since the area was paved for a walkway, the pavement had to be removed first. Then the plot was prepared. To avoid any mistake, a large area was excavated, on the east-west axis about ten meters and on the north-south axis, six meters.
In the process of excavation the foundations of several structures were exposed, mostly from the nineteenth century, a chapel and an annex, built in 1867 along with the church consecrated to Filaret the Merciful on the south side of the Holy Spirit church.
But the basic discovery was made along the northwest corner of the church of the Holy Spirit. Here were exposed the foundations of the first, or one of the first, chapels erected over Maxim's grave. The site of these foundations with respect to Holy Spirit, the dimensions and the corresponding spatial area enclosed by them precisely corresponded to the chapel over the grave that was indicated in the plat of 1745. As soon as these foundations were exposed, work concentrated basically within them. The soil was heavy gray subsoil clay.
Around noon on 30 June from the southern part of the excavation a sweet fragrance was felt and after some time the holy head of Saint Maxim became visible. Jumping ahead, let me say that the fragrance lasted several days. Work that night continued until almost 2:00 a.m. It was determined that the burial was on a wooden slab, which was completely preserved (about 15 cm. high), and that the holy remains were on the spot where according to the plat of 1745 the grave was located, and that besides the holy remains within the foundations of the chapel there were no other burials. After this it became clear that the sacred remains that had been discovered belonged to Saint Maxim the Greek.
On Tuesday 1 July a detailed report about the results of the work that had been conducted and about the disclosure of the sacred remains of Saint Maxim the Greek was made to the most holy patriarch. It was noted that historical and archaeological evidence, as well as the distinctly recognized fragrance, testified that the preserved sacred remains belonged to Maxim.
His most holiness gave his blessing for an anthropological examination of the preserved remains. That was done 2 July by the chief anthropologists of the Russian academy of sciences. The written avidavit stated that (1) the discovered remains belonged to a single person; (2) this person was male; (3) he died at about age 80.
A comparison of the sacred head with ancient drawings of Saint Maxim that the anthropologists made showed similarities. Thus, the expert conclusion of the anthropologists confirmed the previous conclusion that the remains belonged to Maxim the Greek.
The conclusions of the anthropologists on the same day were taken to the most holy patriarch. His most holiness gave his blessing for raising the remains on the next day, 3 July 1996. After this the work continued literally uninterrupted until his most holiness arrived. There was a break only from five to eight a.m.
It was decided that not the slightest part of the sacred relics would remain in the earth and that they would be raised as a single piece, that is along with the slab and a layer of soil. For this it was necessary to dig out the soil under the slab, although the gray clay broke up very poorly and for a long time prevented lifting out the unitary item. Finally, by two in the afternoon the relics of Saint Maxim were transferred to a temporary casket, prepared for removal, and they were covered with a monastic cowl. The casket remained on the spot where the burial was found.
And then the sound of the bells announced the arrival of the blessed archimandrite of the Holy Trinity Saint Sergius lavra, the patriarch of all-Russia, Alexis. As usual, the most holy patriarch began his visit at the lavra by venerating the holy relics of Saint Sergius in the Trinity church. After Trinity church his most holiness went to the church of the Holy Spirit for vesting. There the blessed archimandrite conversed with the director and other residents of the lavra and learned about the course of the excavations.
At 4:00 p.m. the most holy patriarch, with Bishop Alexis of Orekhovo-Zueva, Feognost, director of the lavra, and other priests, among whom was the dean of the annex of the Mount Athos Russian monastery of Panteleimon, monastic priest Feoktist, went to cathedral square. A prayer service to Saint Maxim the Greek was begun. After the reading of the Holy Gospel, the most holy patriarch and the priest approached the excavation and the prayer continued over the sacred remains of Saint Maxim.
At the end of the prayer service to Saint Maxim, read by the most holy patriarch (see the photograph), the lavra choir under the direction of archimandrite Matfei Mormyl and the numerous pilgrims who attended the ceremony began to sing the doxology: We bless you, our father Saint Maxim. During the singing of the doxology all the diggers raised the casket with the sacred remains and placed it at the edge of the excavation where the brothers of the lavra and the residents of the Moscow annex of Saint Panteleimon's of Athens took it. As the singing continued the casket was born into the church of the Holy Spirit, where it was placed on a specially prepared spot in the center of the church.
The year 1996 marks the 440th anniversary of the death of Saint Maxim the Greek. Saint Maxim came to the lavra of Saint Sergius as a humble monk. The spiritual reason and experience of the Russian Orthodox church matured in the humility and sufferings of Saint Maxim, in his steadfastness in matters of the truth faith, and in his devout life into a demonstration of the highest Christian piety and vigorous zeal in following the commands of Christ the Savior. The discovery of the sacred remains of Saint Maxim and the solemnity and joy on the occasion of this event were a worthy recompense for the multitude of the sufferings of his earthly life.
The discovery of the holy relics of Saint Maxim the Greek was a great holiday for both the Russian Orthodox church and for all of Orthodoxy, for Saint Maxim is honored as a saint by both the Constantinople and Greek Orthodox churches.
Bright and clear before our physical eyes this intercessor with Christ the Savior for us sinners and for our longsuffering church has appeared.
from Zhurnal moskovskoi patriarkhii, no. 9, 1996, 74-77 (tr. by PDS)