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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 87. Worship of Relics. Dogma of the Resurrection. Miracles of Relics.


Comp. the Literature at § 84. Also J. Mabillon (R.C.): Observationes de sanctorum reliquiis (Praef. ad Acta s. Bened. Ordinis). Par. 1669. Barrington and Kirk (R.C.): The Faith of Catholics, &c. Lond. 1846. Vol. iii. pp. 250–307. On the Protestant side, J. H. Jung: Disquisitio antiquaria de reliqu. et profanis et sacris earumque cultu, ed. 4. Hannov. 1783.


The veneration of martyrs and saints had respect, in the first instance, to their immortal spirits in heaven, but came to be extended, also, in a lower degree, to their earthly remains or relics.867867   Reliquiae, and reliqua, λείψανα. By these are to be understood, first, their bodies, or rather parts of them, bones, blood, ashes; then all which was in any way closely connected with their persons, clothes, staff, furniture, and especially the instruments of their martyrdom. After the time of Ambrose the cross of Christ also, which, with the superscription and the nails, are said to have been miraculously discovered by the empress Helena in 326,868868   The legend of the “invention of the cross” (inventio s. crucis), which is celebrated in the Greek and Latin churches by a special festival, is at best faintly implied in Eusebius in a letter of Constantineto the bishop Macarius of Jerusalem (Vita Const. iii. 30—a passage which Gieseler overlooked—though in iii. 25, where it should be expected, it is entirely unnoticed, as Gieseler correctly observes), and does not appear till several decennia later, first in Cyril of Jerusalem (whose Epist. ad Constantium of 351, however, is considered by Gieseler and others, on critical and theological grounds, a much later production), then, with good agreement as to the main fact, in Ambrose, Chrysostom, Paulinus of Nola, Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret, and other fathers. With all these witnesses the fact is still hardly credible, and has against it particularly the following considerations: (1) The place of the crucifixion was desecrated under the emperor Hadrian by heathen temples and statues, besides being filled up and defaced beyond recognition. (2) There is no clear testimony of a contemporary. (3) The pilgrim from Bordeaux, who visited Jerusalem in 333, and in a still extant itinerarium (Vetera Rom. itineraria, ed. P. Wesseling, p. 593) enumerates all the sacred things of the holy city, knows nothing of the holy cross or its Invention (comp. Gieseler, i. 2, p. 279, note 37; Edinb. ed. vol. ii. p. 36). This miracle contributed very much to the increase of the superstitious use of crosses and crucifixes. Cyril of Jerusalem remarks that about 380 the splinters of the holy cross filled the whole world, and yet, according to the account of the devout but credulous Paulinus of Nola (Epist. 31, al. 11), the original remained in Jerusalem undiminished,—a continual miracle! Besides Gieseler, comp. particularly the minute investigation of this legend by Isaac Taylor, The Invention of the Cross and the Miracles therewith connected, in “Ancient Christianity,” vol. ii. pp. 277-315. was included, and subsequently His crown of thorns and His coat, which are preserved, the former, according to the legend, in Paris, and the latter in Treves.869869   Comp. Gildemeister: Der heil. Rock von Trier, 2d ed. 1845—a controversial work called forth by the Ronge excitement in German Catholicism in 1844. Relics of the body of Christ cannot be thought of, since He arose without seeing corruption, and ascended to heaven, where, above the reach of idolatry and superstition, He is enthroned at the right hand of the Father. His true relics are the Holy Supper and His living presence in the church to the end of the world.

The worship of relics, like the worship of Mary and the saints, began in a sound religious feeling of reverence, of love, and of gratitude, but has swollen to an avalanche, and rushed into all kinds of superstitious and idolatrous excess. “The most glorious thing that the mind conceives,” says Goethe, “is always set upon by a throng of more and more foreign matter.”

As Israel could not sustain the pure elevation of its divinely revealed religion, but lusted after the flesh pots of Egypt and coquetted with sensuous heathenism so it fared also with the ancient church.

The worship of relics cannot be derived from Judaism; for the Levitical law strictly prohibited the contact of bodies and bones of the dead as defiling.870870   Num. xix. 11 ff.; xxxi. 19. The touching of a corpse or a dead bone, or a grave, made one unclean seven days, and was to be expiated by washing, upon pain of death. The tent, also, in which a person had died, and all open vessels in it, were unclean. Comp. Josephus, c. Apion. ii. 26; Antiqu. iii. 11, 3. The Talmudists made the laws still more stringent on this point. Yet the isolated instance of the bones of the prophet Elisha quickening by their contact a dead man who was cast into his tomb,871871   2 Kings xiii. 21 (Sept.): ἥψατο τῶν ὀστῶν Ἑλισαιέ, καὶ ἔζησε καὶ ἔστη ἐπὶ τοὺς πόδαςComp. the apocryphal book Jesus Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) xlviii. 13, 14; xlix. 12. was quoted in behalf of the miraculous power of relics; though it should be observed that even this miracle did not lead the Israelites to do homage to the bones of the prophet nor abolish the law of the uncleanness of a corpse.

The heathen abhorred corpses, and burnt them to ashes, except in Egypt, where embalming was the custom and was imitated by the Christians on the death of martyrs, though St. Anthony protested against it. There are examples, however, of the preservation of the bones of distinguished heroes like Theseus, and of the erection of temples over their graves.872872    Plutarch, in his Life of Theseus, c. 86.

The Christian relic worship was primarily a natural consequence of the worship of the saints, and was closely connected with the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which was an essential article of the apostolic tradition, and is incorporated in almost all the ancient creeds. For according to the gospel the body is not an evil substance, as the Platonists, Gnostics, Manichaeans held, but a creature of God; it is redeemed by Christ; it becomes by the regeneration an organ and temple of the Holy Ghost; and it rests as a living seed in the grave, to be raised again at the last day, and changed into the likeness of the glorious body of Christ. The bodies of the righteous “grow green” in their graves, to burst forth in glorious bloom on the morning of the resurrection. The first Christians from the beginning set great store by this comforting doctrine, at which the heathen, like Celsus and Julian, scoffed. Hence they abhorred also the heathen custom of burning, and adopted the Jewish custom of burial with solemn religious ceremonies, which, however, varied in different times and countries.

But in the closer definition of the dogma of the resurrection two different tendencies appeared: a spiritualistic, represented by the Alexandrians, particularly by Origen and still later by the two Gregories; the other more realistic, favored by the Apostles’ Creed,873873   In the phrase ἀνάστασις τῆς σαρκός, instead of τοῦ σώματος, resurrectio carnis, instead of corporis. The Nicene creed uses the expression ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν, resurrectio mortuorum. In the German version of the Apostles’ Creed the easily mistaken term Fleisch, flesh, is retained; but the English churches say more correctly: resurrection of the body. advocated by Tertullian, but pressed by some church teachers, like Epiphanius and Jerome, in a grossly materialistic manner, without regard to the σῶμα π́ευματικόν of Paul and the declaration that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”874874   Jerome, on the ground of his false translation of Job xix. 26, teaches even the restoration of all bones, veins, nerves, teeth, and hair (because the Bible speaks of gnashing of teeth among the damned, and of the hairs our heads being all numbered!). “Habent dentes,” says he of the resurrection bodies, “ventrem, genitalia, et tamen nec cibis nec uxoribus indigent.” Augustineis more cautious, and endeavors to avoid gross, carnal conceptions. Comp. the passages in Hagenbach’s Dogmengeschichte, i. § 140 (Engl. ed., New York, i. p. 370 ff.). The latter theory was far the more consonant with the prevailing spirit of our period, entirely supplanted the other, and gave the mortal remains of the saints a higher value, and the worship of them a firmer foundation.

Roman Catholic historians and apologists find a justification of the worship and the healing virtue of relics in three facts of the New Testament: the healing of the woman with the issue of blood by the touch of Jesus’ garment;875875   Matt. ix. 20. the healing of the sick by the shadow of Peter;876876   Acts v. 14, 15.and the same by handkerchiefs from Paul.877877   Acts xix. 11, 12.

These examples, as well as the miracle wrought by the bones of Elisha, were cited by Origen, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and other fathers, to vindicate similar and greater miracles in their time. They certainly mark the extreme limit of the miraculous, beyond which it passes into the magical. But in all these cases the living and present person was the vehicle of the healing power; in the second case Luke records merely the popular belief, not the actual healing; and finally neither Christ nor the apostles themselves chose that method, nor in any way sanctioned the superstitions on which it was based.878878   On the contrary, the account of the healing of sick by the handkerchiefs of Paul is immediately followed by an account of the magical abuse of the name of Jesus, as a warning, Acts xix. 13 ff. At all events, the New Testament and the literature of the apostolic fathers know nothing of an idolatrous veneration of the cross of Christ or the bones and chattels of the apostles. The living words and acts of Christ and the apostles so completely absorbed attention that we have no authentic accounts of the bodily appearance, the incidental externals, and transient possessions of the founders of the church. Paul would know Christ after the spirit, not after the flesh. Even the burial places of most of the apostles and evangelists are unknown. The traditions of their martyrdom and their remains date from a much later time, and can claim no historical credibility.

The first clear traces of the worship of relics appear in the second century in the church of Antioch, where the bones of the bishop and martyr Ignatius († 107) were preserved as a priceless treasure;879879   θησαυρὸς ἀτίμητος. Martyr. S. Ignat. cap. vii. (Patrum Apostolic. Opera, ed. Dressel, p. 214). The genuineness of the Martyr-Acts of Ignatius, however, is disputed by many. and in Smyrna, where the half-burnt bones of Polycarp († 167) were considered “more precious than the richest jewels and more tried than gold.”880880   Τὰ τιμιώτερα λίθων πολυτελῶν καὶ δοκιμώτερα ὑπὲρ χρυσίον ὀστᾶ αὐτοῦ, Epist. Eccl. Smyrn. de Martyr. S. Polyc. c. 18 (ed. Dressel, p. 404), and in Euseb. H. E. iv. 15. We read similar things in the Acts of the martyrs Perpetua and Cyprian. The author of the Apostolic Constitutions881881   Const. Apost. lib. vi. c. 30. The sixth book dates from the end of the third century. exhorts that the relics of the saints, who are with the God of the living and not of the dead, be held in honor, and appeals to the miracle of the bones of Elisha, to the veneration which Joseph showed for the remains of Jacob, and to the bringing of the bones of Joseph by Moses and Joshua into the promised land.882882   Comp. Gen. l. 1, 2, 25, 26; Ex. xiii. 19; Jos. xxiv. 32; Acts vii. 16. Eusebius states that the episcopal throne of James of Jerusalem was preserved to his time, and was held in great honor.883883   Hist. Ecel. vii. 19 and 32.

Such pious fondness for relics, however, if it is confined within proper limits, is very natural and innocent, and appears even in the Puritans of New England, where the rock in Plymouth, the landing place of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1620, has the attraction of a place of pilgrimage, and the chair of the first governor of Massachusetts is scrupulously preserved, and is used at the inauguration of every new president of Harvard University.

But toward the middle of the fourth century the veneration of relics simultaneously with the worship of the saints, assumed a decidedly superstitious and idolatrous character. The earthly remains of the martyrs were discovered commonly by visions and revelations, often not till centuries after their death, then borne in solemn processions to the churches and chapels erected to their memory, and deposited under the altar;884884   With reference to Rev. vi. 9: “I saw under the altar (ὑποκάτω τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου) the souls of them that were slain for the word of God,” &c. and this event was annually celebrated by a festival.885885   Festum translationis. The legend of the discovery of the holy cross gave rise to two church festivals: The Feast of the Invention of the Cross886886   Festum inventionis s. crucis. on the third of May, which has been observed in the Latin church since the fifth or sixth century; and The Feast of the Elevation of the Cross,887887   Festum exaltationis s. crucis, σταυροφανεία. on the fourteenth of September, which has been observed in the East and the West, according to some since the consecration of the church of the Holy Sepulchre in 335, according to others only since the reconquest of the holy cross by the emperor Heraclius in 628. The relics were from time to time displayed to the veneration of the believing multitude, carried about in processions, preserved in golden and silver boxes, worn on the neck as amulets against disease and danger of every kind, and considered as possessing miraculous virtue, or more strictly, as instruments through which the saints in heaven, in virtue of their connection with Christ, wrought miracles of healing and even of raising the dead. Their number soon reached the incredible, even from one and the same original; there were, for example, countless splinters of the pretended cross of Christ from Jerusalem, while the cross itself is said to have remained, by a continued miracle, whole and undiminished! Veneration of the cross and crucifix knew no bounds, but can, by no means, be taken as a true measure of the worship of the Crucified; on the contrary, with the great mass the outward form came into the place of the spiritual intent, and the wooden and silver Christ was very often a poor substitute for the living Christ in the heart.888888   What Luther says of the “juggleries and idolatries” of the cross under the later papacy, which “would rather bear the cross of Christ in silver, than in heart and life,” applies, though, of course, with many noble exceptions, even to the period before us. Dr. Herzog, in his Theol. Encyclopaedia, vol. viii. p. 60 f., makes the not unjust remark: “The more the cross came into use in manifold forms and signs, the more the truly evangelical faith in Christ, the Crucified, disappeared. The more the cross of Christ was outwardly exhibited, the more it became inwardly an offence and folly to men. The Roman Catholic church in this respect resembles those Christians, who talk so much of their spiritual experiences, make so much ado about them that they at last talk themselves out, and produce glittering nonsense.”

Relics became a regular article of trade, but gave occasion, also, for very many frauds, which even such credulous and superstitious relic-worshippers as St. Martin of Tours889889   Sulpit. Severus, Vita beati Mart. c. 11. and Gregory the Great890890   Epist. lib. iv. Ep. 30. Gregory here relates that some Greek monks came to Rome to dig up bones near St. Paul’s church to sell, as they themselves confessed, for holy relics in the East (confessi sunt, quod illa ossa ad Graeciam essent tamquam Sanctorum reliquias portaturi). lamented. Theodosius I., as early as 386, prohibited this trade; and so did many councils; but without success. On this account the bishops found themselves compelled to prove the genuineness of the relics by historical tradition, or visions, or miracles.

At first, an opposition arose to this worship of dead men’s bones. St. Anthony, the father of monasticism († 356), put in his dying protest against it, directing that his body should be buried in an unknown place. Athanasius relates this with approbation,891891   In his Vita Antoini, Opera Athan. ii. 502. and he caused several relics which had been given to him to be fastened up, that they might be out of the reach of idolatry.892892   Rufinus, Hist. Ecel. ii. 28. But the opposition soon ceased, or became confined to inferior or heretical authors, like Vigilantius and Eunomius, or to heathen opponents like Porphyry and Julian. Julian charges the Christians, on this point, with apostasy from their own Master, and sarcastically reminds them of His denunciation of the Pharisees, who were like whited sepulchres, beautiful without, but within full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.893893   Cyrillus Alex. Adv. Jul. l. x. tom. vi. p. 356. This opposition, of course, made no impression, and was attributed to sheer impiety. Even heretics and schismatics, with few exceptions, embraced this form of superstition, though the Catholic church denied the genuineness of their relics and the miraculous virtue of them

The most and the best of the church teachers of our period, Hilary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Isidore of Pelusium, Theodoret, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Leo, even those who combated the worship of images on this point, were carried along by the spirit of the time, and gave the weight of their countenance to the worship of relics, which thus became an essential constituent of the Greek and Roman Catholic religion. They went quite as far as the council of Trent,894894   Sessio xxv. De Invocat. Sanct., etc. which expresses itself more cautiously, on the worship of relics as well as of saints, than the church fathers of the Nicene age. With the good intent to promote popular piety by sensible stimulants and tangible supports, they became promoters of dangerous errors and gross superstition.

To cite some of the most important testimonies:

Gregory Nazianzen thinks the bodies of the saints can as well perform miracles, as their spirits, and that the smallest parts of the body or of the symbols of their passion are as efficacious as the whole body.895895   Adv. Julian. t. i. Orat. iii. p. 76 sq.

Chrysostom values the dust and ashes of the martyrs more highly than gold or jewels, and ascribes to them the power of healing diseases and putting death to flight.896896   Opera, tom. ii. p. 828. In his festal discourse on the translation of the relics of the Egyptian martyrs from Alexandria to Constantinople, he extols the bodies of the saints in eloquent strains as the best ramparts of the city against all visible enemies and invisible demons, mightier than walls, moats, weapons, and armies.897897   Hom. in MM. Aegypt. tom. ii. p. 834 sq.

“Let others,” says Ambrose, “heap up silver and gold; we gather the nails wherewith the martyrs were pierced, and their victorious blood, and the wood of their cross.”898898   Exhort. virgin. 1. He himself relates at large, in a letter to his sister, the miraculous discovery of the bones of the twin brothers Gervasius and Protasius, two otherwise wholly unknown and long-forgotten martyrs of the persecution under Nero or Domitian.899899   Epist. xxii. Sorori suae, Op. ii. pp. 874-878. Comp. Paulinus, Vit. Ambros. p. iv.; Paulinus Nol. Ep. xii. ad Severum; and Augustinein sundry places (see below). This is one of the most notorious relic miracles of the early church. It is attested by the most weighty authorities, by Ambrose and his younger contemporaries, his secretary and biographer Paulinus, the bishop Paulinus of Nola, and Augustine, who was then in Milan; it decided the victory of the Nicene orthodoxy over the Arian opposition of the empress Justina; yet is it very difficult to be believed, and seems at least in part to rest on pious frauds.900900   Clericus, Mosheim, and Isaac Taylor (vol. ii. p. 242 ff.) do not hesitate to charge St. Ambrose, the author of the Te Deum, with fraud in this story. The latter, however, endeavors to save the character of Ambroseby distinguishing between himself and the spirit of his age. “Ambrose,” says he (ii. 270), “occupies a high position among the Fathers; and there was a vigor and dignity in his character, as well as a vivid intelligence, which must command respect; but in proportion as we assign praise to the man, individually, we condemn the system which could so far vitiate a noble mind, and impel one so lofty in temper to act a part which heathen philosophers would utterly have abhorred.”

The story is, that when Ambrose, in 386, wished to consecrate the basilica at Milan, he was led by a higher intimation in a vision to cause the ground before the doors of Sts. Felix and Nahor to be dug up, and there he found two corpses of uncommon size, the heads severed from the bodies (for they died by the sword), the bones perfectly preserved, together with a great quantity of fresh blood.901901   “Invenimus mirae magnitudinis viros duos, ut prisca aetas ferebat, ossa omnia integra, sanguinis plurimum! ” Did Ambrosereally believe that men in the first century (prisca aetas) were of greater bodily stature than his contemporaries in the fourth? But especially absurd is the mass of fresh blood, which then was exported throughout Christendom as a panacea. According to Romish tradition, the blood of many saints, as of Januarius in Naples, becomes liquid every year. Taylor the miraculously healed Severus, by trade a butcher, had something to do with this blood. These were the saints in question. They were exposed for two days to the wondering multitude, then borne in solemn procession to the basilica of Ambrose, performing on the way the healing of a blind man, Severus by name, a butcher by trade, and afterward sexton of this church. This, however, was not the only miracle which the bones performed. “The age of miracles returned,” says Ambrose. “How many pieces of linen, how many portions of dress, were cast upon the holy relics and were recovered with the power of healing from that touch.902902   “Et tactu ipso medicabilia reposcuntur.” It is a source of joy to all to touch but the extremest portion of the linen that covers them; and whoso touches is healed. We give thee thanks, O Lord Jesus, that thou hast stirred up the energies of the holy martyrs at this time, wherein thy church has need of stronger defence. Let all learn what combatants I seek, who are able to contend for us, but who do not assail us, who minister good to all, harm to none.” In his homily De inventione SS. Gervasii et Protasii, he vindicates the miracle of the healing of the blind man against the doubts of the Arians, and speaks of it as a universally acknowledged and undeniable fact: The healed man, Severus, is well known, and publicly testifies that he received his sight by the contact of the covering of the holy relics.

Jerome calls Vigilantius, for his opposition to the idolatrous veneration of ashes and bones, a wretched man, whose condition cannot be sufficiently pitied, a Samaritan and Jew, who considered the dead unclean; but he protects himself against the charge of superstition. We honor the relics of the martyrs, says he, that we may adore the God of the martyrs; we honor the servants, in order thereby to honor the Master, who has said: “He that receiveth you, receiveth me.”903903   Ep. cix. ad Riparium. The saints are not dead; for the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not a God of the dead, but of the living. Neither are they enclosed in Abraham’s bosom as in a prison till the day of Judgment, but they follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth.904904   Adv. Vigil.c. 6.

Augustine believed in the above-mentioned miraculous discovery of the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, and the healing of the blind man by contact with them, because he himself was then in Milan, in 386, at the time of his conversion,905905   Cum illic—Mediolani—essemus. and was an eye-witness, not indeed of the discovery of the bones—for this he nowhere says—but of the miracles, and of the great stir among the people.906906   He speaks of this four times clearly and plainly, Confess. ix. 7; De Civit Dei, xxii. 8; Serm. 286 in Natali MM. Protasii et Gervasii; Retract. i. 13, § 7.

He gave credit likewise to the many miraculous cures which the bones of the first martyr Stephen are said to have performed in various parts of Africa in his time.907907   Serm. 317 and 318 de Martyr. Steph. Is. Taylor (l.c. ii. pp. 316-350) has thoroughly investigated the legend of the relics of the proto-martyr, and comes to the conclusion that it likewise rests on pious frauds which Augustinehonestly believed. These relics were discovered in 415, nearly four centuries after the stoning of Stephen, in an obscure hamlet near Jerusalem, through a vision of Gamaliel, by a priest of Lucian; and some years afterward portions of them were transported to Uzali, not far from Utica, in North Africa, and to Spain and Gaul, and everywhere caused the greatest ado in the superstitious populace.

But Augustine laments, on the other hand, the trade in real and fictitious relics, which was driven in his day,908908   De opere Monachorum, c. 28: “Tam multos hypocrites sub habitu monachomm [hostis] usquequoque dispersit, circumeuntes provincias, nusquam missos, nusquam fixos, nusquam stantes, nusquam sedentes. Alii membra martyrum, el tamen martyrum, venditant.” Augustinerejects the pretended miracles of the Donatists, and calls them wonderlings (mirabiliarii), who are either deceivers or deceived (In Joann. evang. Tract. xiii. § 17). and holds the miracles to be really superfluous, now that the world is converted to Christianity, so that he who still demands miracles, is himself a miracle.909909   De Civit. Dei, xxii. c. 8: “Cur, inquiunt, nunc illa miracula, quae praedicatis facta esse, non fiunt? Possem quidem dicere, necessaria fuisse priusquam crederet mundus, ad hoc ut crederet mundus. Quisvis adhuc prodigia ut credat inquirit, magnum est ipse prodigium, qui mundo credente non credit.” Comp. De util. cred. c. 25, § 47; c. 50, § 98; De vera relig. c. 25, § 47. Though he adds, that to that day miracles were performed in the name of Jesus by the sacraments or by the saints, but not with the same lustre, nor with the same significance and authority for the whole Christian world.910910   Ibid.: “Nam etiam nunc fiunt miracula in ejus nomine, Sive per sacramenta ejus, Sive per orationes vel memorias sanctorum ejus; sed non eadem claritate illustrantur, ut tanta quanta illa gloria diffamentur .... Nam plerumque etiam ibi [in the place where these miracles were wrought] paucissimi sciunt, ignorantibus caeteris, maxime si magna sit civitas; et quando alibi aliisque narrantur, non tanta ea commendat auctoritas, ut sine difficultate vel dubitatione credantur, quamvis Christianis fidelibus a fidelibus indicentur.” Then follows the account of the famous miraculum Protasii et Gervasii, and of several cures in Carthage and Hippo. Those in Hippo were wrought by the relics of St. Stephen, and formally confirmed. Thus he himself furnishes a warrant and an entering wedge for critical doubt in our estimate of those phenomena.911911   Comp. Fr. Nitzsch(jun.): Augustinus’ Lehre vom Wunder, Berlin, 1865, especially pp. 82-45. (A very full and satisfactory treatise.)



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