Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Piece Off

It is nearly the New Year here in America's heartland. But within the borders of Christendom, January 1 has long held religious significance unrelated to our modern calendars. As the doctrines of Christianity evolved, certain highlights of Jesus' biography took on larger-than-life importance, and were incorporated into the liturgical calendar for annual commemoration.

Last week, Christians celebrated the birth of a male in Roman-occupied Judea. By the reckoning used at that time, the first of January is the eighth day of Christ-Mass, making it...

     ...the day Jesus' blood was first shed by men in obedience to the Law of Moses...

          ...the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ! Oh, boy!

Circumcision of Christ, detail from Twelve Apostles Altar (Zwölf-Boten-Altar).
Painting by 
Friedrich Herlin of Nördlingen, 1466. Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14

On the eighth day… it was time to circumcise the child...  Luke 2:21

And the child grew and became strong... Luke 2:40

Medieval theologians disagreed about what happened to this Holy Foreskin, or Holy Prepuce, as it is formally known. Some believed it returned to heaven with the ascending Christ. Others that it stayed behind on earth. It was said that Mary kept it as a souvenir. Charlemagne claimed an angel brought it to him--and he presented it to the Pope. A 16th-century Greek theologian, Leo Allatius, wrote a speculative essay suggesting that this particular bit of divine flesh stopped halfway between earth and heaven, forming the rings of Saturn!

When Agnes Blannbekin hit puberty in the thirteenth century, the Austrian peasant girl developed a craving for the Communion wafers offered as the Body of Christ. She claimed she could taste him in the Eucharist. A few years later, she joined a convent and became a vegetarian, Christ's flesh being all the meat she desired. Agnes heard voices, had visions involving bright lights, and even experienced orgasms during her spiritual "revelations" which sometimes involved being kissed by Christ. She became obsessed with the foreskin of the infant Jesus which she believed she felt on her tongue and swallowed sweetly at least one hundred times. Her confessor recorded many of Agnes' revelations, some of which were considered obscene. According to one, she was told that Christ's foreskin was resurrected when the rest of his body was returned to life after the crucifixion. Agnes lived as a nun in Vienna until her death in 1315.

David Friedman's book A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis reports on another visionary saint: "In the fourteenth century, Bridget of Sweden had a vision in which Mary appeared to her with the relic in her hand and told the future saint she gave the treasure to the apostle John." Bridget also described the foreskin's taste as sweet.

The mystic St. Catherine of Siena began having visions at the tender age of seven. She became a nun to escape "her family's attempts to marry her off". She claimed that Jesus himself cut off his Holy Foreskin and gave it to her to wear as a wedding ring. Catherine insisted she could see the foreskin when she looked at her ring until her death in 1380 at the age of 33.

In a 2007 study called "The Circumcision of Jesus Christ", psychiatrist and professor Johan Mattelaer and his colleagues explored historical references to the event.
"In Belgium alone there are no fewer than 54 listed works in churches, museums and public buildings relating to Christ's circumcision..."
"...The Dominican scholar AV Müller, writing in 1907, could list no fewer than 13 separate locations, all of which claimed to possess the sacred foreskin."
According to an article in the Guardian covering Mattelaer's research:
The study also reports that King Henry V stole the genuine article - the one so identified by Pope Clement VII - from the French in 1422, and that "the monks of Chartres were only able to recover it with great difficulty".
David Farley writes for Slate that the rediscovery of a foreskin relic in France in 1900 made the Vatican uncomfortable.
"...the Vatican decreed that anyone who wrote about or spoke the name of the holy foreskin would face excommunication.
Vatican II even took Jesus' circumcision day off the church calendar. But then 1960's hippies moving into the Italian ghost town of Calcata were intrigued by the "quirky" relic that had long been deemed the most legit in its category. They wouldn't shut up about the unique tourist attraction. The local priest eventually took it into his home for safekeeping in a shoebox in his closet. And in 1983, the piece of God mysteriously disappeared, leading to speculation that it may have been stolen by the Vatican.   

Have a happy Piece-off-God's-Penis Day!