January 2

About that foreskin. Yesterday’s blog post was about the medieval celebration of the Circumcision of Jesus and curious readers may be asking: whatever happened to that particular prepuce? Thereby hangs a tale.

While the bodies of Christian saints have yielded thousands of relics, the bodies of Christ and the Virgin Mary, both of which were taken into Heaven, are much less productive of remains. The faithful believed that some of the Virgin’s breast milk and hair were preserved for veneration and that drops of the blood of Jesus at his crucifixion had been saved, but the only body part of Christ that was available as a relic was his foreskin.

How it came to be safeguarded is told in a pseudo-gospel called the Arab Infancy Gospel from the fifth or sixth centuries: And when the time of his circumcision was come, namely, the eighth day, on which the law commanded the child to be circumcised, they circumcised him in a cave. And the old Hebrew woman took the foreskin (others say she took the navel-string), and preserved it in an alabaster-box of old oil of spikenard. And she had a son who was a druggist, to whom she said, “Take heed thou sell not this alabaster box of spikenard-ointment, although thou shouldst be offered three hundred pence for it.” Now this is that alabaster-box which Mary the sinner procured, and poured forth the ointment out of it upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wiped it off with the hairs of her head.

In the year 800 the Frankish emperor Charlemagne gave the relic to Pope Leo III, telling him that he had received it from an angel. It was preserved in Rome until the city was sacked by Germans in 1527 when it was stolen. The Italian village in which it was recovered kept the foreskin in its reliquary until it disappeared either in 1945 or 1983.

But fear not, because as many as 18 other foreskins of Christ were said to be in circulation during the Middle Ages, though none now can be found. The Catholic Church eventually grew weary of celebrating the Feast of the Circumcision and removed it from the church calendar.

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