Why is a decomposed body of a saint a sign of piety in the West but a sign of an excommunicated sinner in the East?
We got an email that said:
....oooo and of course the saints which bodies are not decomposed...
It is wonderful to hear from one of our Orthodox brothers who sees (as we do) that the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church are essentially united in one Apostolic Faith, and that we should not be divided. As the late Pope John Paul said, we are "two lungs within the same Body," and "we must learn to breathe with both lungs."
Different cultures express the faith differently
The questions are very good ones, and they deal with the real heart of the matter --that is, the fact that we are separated, not because of any differences in Apostolic doctrine, but because of human cultural differences. This must be appreciated; and we should not let these human cultural differences divided us, but must overcome them with charity and understanding based on a love of Truth and a unity in Truth.. For, the Apostles were all Jews, and they originally expressed the Apostolic Faith in a very Jewish way --that is, within their own Jewish culture. But, when these Apostles began to convert different parts of the ancient world (e.g. the Greeks and Romans in the West, the Syrians in the East, the Copts in Egypt, etc.) the Apostles allowed these different peoples to express the Apostolic Faith in their own ways --that is, according to the understanding and sensibilities of their own native cultures. This is why there are many different rites in the Catholic/Orthodox Church. And these rites --these cultural ways of expressing the Apostolic Faith --run very deep. And we must learn that we are one Church and one Faith, but not one culture. We are many cultures in the one Church of Christ.
How do cultural differences apply to incorrupt (not decomposed) saints?
Now, because we have different cultures, what may having meaning in one part of the universal Church may mean something totally different in another part of the Church. And the incorrupt (not decomposed) bodies of saints is a very good example of this. In the Eastern Church, when a body does not decompose, it implies that the person is excommunicated and a sinner. This is because, in the Greek rites of the Church, in the decree of excommunication (when an unrepentant sinner is thrown out of the Church) they say "May the earth not accept your body." This originally referred to the fact that an excommunicated person could not be buried with the other Christians in a Christian cemetery. But, in the Western Church (which is a totally different culture), when a body does not decompose it is seen as a sign of the final resurrection --that is, it reminds us of the promise that all Christians will rise again from the dead, and that the saint is (like Christ) preserved by God from corruption, as St. Peter says in Acts 2:27. So, this same thing is viewed differently in each of our rites --East vs. West. In other words, God speaks to us differently within our two different cultures. To we Western Christians, He allows the bodies of some saints to not decompose to remind us of the final resurrection, because that's what that sign means to us (within our own culture). And, to Eastern Christians, he allows the bodies of saints to decompose because that means that they are holy in Eastern culture. So, as on the day of Pentecost, when each person heard the Gospel in his own native language, God still speaks to us in different languages (different cultural meanings) today.
Unity depends on us allowing God to communicate differently to different cultures
In order for the universal Church to have true unity, we must appreciate this fact. Different Divine signs mean different things to different cultures. One must understand the sign within the culture to which it was given. If the Divine sign was given to the East, it must be understood as Eastern Christians understand it. And, if the Divine sign is given to the West, it must be understood as Western Christians understand it. And we have always had to do this, even long before our Schism in 1054. For example, back in A.D. 190, the Christians in Asia Minor conflicted with the Christians in Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria over when was the correct date to celebrate Pascha (Easter). The Asians had a tradition from the Apostle John that Pascha should be celebrated three days after the Jewish Passover, no matter what day of the week it fell on. But, in Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, they had a tradition from the Apostles Peter and Paul that Pascha should be celebrated on the Sunday after the Jewish Passover. Now, this did not mean that the Apostles were not in unity. It just meant that they had different cultural customs. And, from 190 until the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, the Christians of various regions celebrated Pascha on different dates and respected each others' different customs and understandings because they knew that their different traditions all came from the Apostles, and so were equally valid. ...even though they were different. This is the type of tolerance and charity that we need today. The important thing is that we hold to the same orthodox doctrines and the same Faith. Our customs and cultural understandings of things do not have to be exactly the same.
Hope that helps, dear brother. If you have any other questions, please let me know.
Charis kai eirene (Grace and Peace)