05 August 2014

Medieval Relics, From Baby Jesus to Hitler

In the medieval world, miracles were still common and religious symbolism was not symbolic.  Wilsnack is today a tiny town of about 2,000, halfway between Berlin and Hamburg and yet because of reports that during a fire the Host – the holy bread used for communion – not only survived but bled, it was the fourth most popular destination for pilgrims (Rome and Jerusalem being first and second on that list). [1]  Monasteries attracted pilgrims with claims that they items like pieces of the crown Christ wore on the cross, his baby teeth, or umbilical cord (a double relic, of both Jesus and Mary).

The statue of St Longinus byGianlorenzo Bernini sits
above the relic in St Peter's Basilica
Even the pope’s own treasury of relics included the holy prepuce cut away when baby Jesus was circumcised. “Saint Catherine was often painted with Jesus putting a ring on her finger in a mystical marriage, but she said in letter after letter that the true marriage with Jesus was sealed with the ring of his circumcised flesh on the spouse’s fingers.” [2]

These beliefs did not die quickly. To give some appreciation of the degree to which Hitler tried to turn back time, after he had invaded Austria, Hitler quickly stole the Spear of Destiny. This was the spear reportedly used to pierce Christ’s side when he was on the cross. Since the time of Charlemagne, leaders of the Holy Roman Empire had held this spear with the apparent belief that possessing it gave one power to rule. (In their defense, they presided over an empire that lasted – in various forms – for roughly 1,000 years, from 800 to 1803.)  It was a relic that held magic that Hitler trusted, and this less than a century ago.

[1] Gary Willis, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (Viking, New York, NY, 2013) p. 35.
[2] Gary Willis, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition (Viking, New York, NY, 2013) p. 39.

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