Wednesday, July 12


Joseph Ratzinger and the Holy Grail

King Arthur: Go and tell your master that we have been charged by God with a sacred quest. If he will give us food and shelter for the night, he can join us in our quest for the Holy Grail.
French Soldier: Well, I'll ask him, but I don't think he will be very keen. Uh, he's already got one, you see.
King Arthur: What?
Sir Galahad: He said they've already got one!
King Arthur: Are you sure he's got one?
French Soldier: Oh yes, it's very nice!

Okay, you knew with the Santo Caliz of Valencia in the news, that there had to be Pythonism in the offing from the Shrine's resident Templar and Grailologist. (It's like a symbologist, but without Tom Hanks, and with actual footnotes.) For those of you entering this telecast in progress, Benedict XVI recently used the ancient Santo Caliz at his mass at Valencia Cathedral, one of several claimants to the title of the Holy Grail that are scattered around Europe. There's one in Genoa said to be carved from a single emerald, though it's more likely just some old Roman glass, as well as the Welsh Nanteos Cup, a wooden bowl of uncertain location which apparently attracted a sort of fly-by-night cultus about a century ago, though the tradition itself only goes back to Victorian times. One more extraordinary bit of folklore claims the Grail is hidden at Accokeek, Maryland, brought there by a secret priest aboard the ships of the Jamestown expedition. There are still others. This one in particular is my favorite of the various grails, and was venerated by John Paul II during his visit in 1982.

Of course, whether or not the Santo Caliz is real or not hardly disproves the existence of the true Grail Christ used at the Last Supper. Given the weird quasi-Gnostic undergrowth of romance that grew up around the tales of its quest, its loss or gain is hardly a huge blow to the Church. Still, there's something about the Santo Caliz that suggests this is more than just business as usual. The paper trail only goes back to the Middle Ages, to 1135, when King Ramiro, who placed the original agate cup in its precious setting. This indicates that the relic was already revered greatly by then; there seems to have been a standard iconographic type depicting the Virgin Mary bearing a flaming chalice unique to the region long before that. The cup itself dates back to Syria in the first century BC, and could have been floating around Palestine as an heirloom (or even like a bit of sixties kitsch) around the time of Our Lord.

(The Turin Shroud, whose own properties have proven to be far more bizarre, and which has in some ways an equally good or even better shot at being authentic, or at the very least rather antique, only has paperwork dating back to the fifteenth century, so a pedigree is hardly necessary.)

A recent official at the Vatican Museums pooh-poohed the chalice's claims in a manner that was almost absurdly dismissive, suggesting Christ would have used glass like everyone else of His class and station. There's two incorrect assumptions--one that Christ would have necessarily used glass, which wasn't as humble a material then as it is now (coughMahonycough), and was considered precious enough to be used for chalices until the middle of the 200s, when the fear of breakage, it's said, led it to be replaced by silver. Secondly, Christ's poverty hardly calls into question that He might have used a fine semi-precious stone cup to celebrate this most central and sacred ritual meal with His disciples. The Middle Ages strained hard to make Christ seem a gentleman at times, complete with His own coat of arms (as well as the rather amusing chivalric recasting which saw Lazarus as the feudal lord of Bethany), but today we often strive to make His surroundings, if not He Himself, poorer than they were. It's the Indiana Jones syndrome--while I loved The Last Crusade, everyone now assumes the Grail was a little wooden cup--with, let me remind you, a nice liturgical golden plating on the interior.

The disciples owned very little and lived simply, but Christ had friends in high places such as Joseph and Nicodemus. Being devout Jews in a culture which understood the beauty of holiness and the propriety of using only the best for God, the Twelve would have had the resources to shell out for some nice tableware for the Passover Meal, a ceremony as complex, according to some, as a Tridentine High Mass. Bear in mind, the disciples rented out the Upper Room, and dishes would have presumably been included. Stone vessels, incidentally, were preferred for the Passover at the time, being considered ritually pure.

The question is not what Jesus Himself might have used, but what some well-intentioned donor might have tried to foist off on Him. One legend actually has Nicodemus as the anonymously-encountered owner of the cenacle. The appropriately kosher agate cup, or some other sort of nice stoneware, might not have been out of the budget for this once-a-year opportunity--presuming Mr. Iscariot, with his fearsome sense of accountancy, could have been convinced to shell out the silver for it.

(Guys, um...why am I the only one on the other side of the table?)

In light of all this, some scholars are inclined to think that the chalice is a more likely claimant than it might seem at first glance. St. Lawrence, who a well-substantiated tradition calls a Spaniard, is said to have taken the cup for safekeeping amid the horrors of the Valentinian persecution, and it is possible he might have sent it to his family's homestead near Huesca, where the chalice is known to have been kept from the 1100s onward, but presumably had been there for a good long time earlier, given the sort of stir the arrival of such a new relic might have caused. At the insistence of the antipope Benedict XIII, King Martin the Humane had it ensconced at his private chapel in Zaragoza in 1399, and was transferred to Valencia in 1437. More fantastic theories attempt to link King Alfonso I of Aragon to the mythical Grail king Anfortas, but that's a shakier and much more mistily Celtic sort of sidelight to the whole problem.

Then there's the problem of multiple Grails. One could easily be real and the others fakes (such as the Nanteos cup, which I've always found a bit of a stretch), or all of them fakes, but one amateur Grailologist whose name escapes me made the startling suggestion they all might be authentic, or we even might be short a few grails of a full load. The Grail is not necessarily only the chalice used at the Last Supper, but also the vessel used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the blood of Our Lord upon the Cross, a curious and Eucharistic image that one is initially inclined to dismiss as high-medieval embroidery.

However, I've read that there was the custom at the time among Jews that the spilled blood of a dead man had to be gathered up for burial, and that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, might have provided the precious stone and glass vessels to collect the bloodsoaked earth that Christ left behind on Golgotha. Perhaps I'm misinformed, but it explains the curious image of Joseph collecting the blood under the cross, and the strange and even outlandish traditions of multiple vials of Christ's blood and sweat being taken to Mantua and Lucca by, respectively, the centurion Longinus and the pharisee Nicodemus. For a culture that had preciously collected the manna of Moses, the tablets of the Law, the staff of Aaron and more, and for a beloved Rabbi whose followers tried hard to touch even the hem of His garment, this seems at the very least plausible.

It's not necessarily archaeology, just speculation and legend, and you needn't believe in the Holy Grail to believe in the blood of the God it carried. Every church has something better than the Grail itself, and that's the real presence. But I'm inclined to give our ancient cousins and uncles the benefit of the doubt when it comes to many legends. Stories get garbled and warped, but it's hard to totally make one up, even when one's just plain lying. The great Christian body of legends, the Church's bedtime stories, are the great unrecognized deposit of popular history, and the faithful show a certain noble democracy when they at least give them a little bit of respect now and again. In this instance, the Roman Canon has been speaking for almost a millenia and a half, rather uniquely among liturgies, of "this precious chalice." The expression has to come from somewhere.

Time and time again, as in the case of the grave of St. Peter, ancient legend, even a legend the Church needn't declare part of the deposit of Faith, has suddenly and quite unexpectedly been vindicated by science. We've said Peter was here for two millenia, and lo and behold, we discover his grave has been down there all this time. Surprise! There's a good possibility that the first tellers of such tales were there to witness the events that gave rise to the story, and they may not have had the fancy carbon tests or microscopes we have now, but they had their eyes, and their hearts, and their hard-headed common sense, something which perhaps is in short supply today, two thousand years after the fact.

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