Relics of Christmas
I have a Victorian Book of Days that I bought many years ago. When I turned to the pages for Christmas I found the following paragraphs:-
"It was to the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, that the religious world was indebted for the discovery of the place of burial of these kings in the far east. She removed their bodies to Constantinople, where they remained in the church of St Sophia, until the reign of the Emperor Emanuel, who allowed Eustorgius, bishop of Milan, to transfer them to his cathedral.
In 1164, when the Emperor Frederick conquered Milan, he gave these treasured relics to Raynuldus, archbishop of Cologne, who removed them to the latter city. His successor, Philip von Heinsberg, placed them in a magnificent reliquary, enriched with gems and enamels, still remaining in its marble shrine in the cathedral, one of the chief wonders of the noble pile, and the principal sight in Cologne. A heavy fee is exacted for opening the doors of the chapel, which is then lighted with lamps, producing a dazzling effect on the mass of gilded and jewelled sculpture, in the centre of which may be seen the three skulls, reputed to be those of the Magi.These relics are enveloped in velvet, and decorated with embroidery and jewels, so that the upper part of each skull only is seen, and the hollow eyes which, as the faithful believe, once rested on the Saviour."
In case you didn't get the Victorian lingo - the bones of the Magi are in Cologne Cathedral if you believe that Helena found them. The idea that you could see some relics of something so old was amazing. It set me on the road to further investigation. The first question was - were the relics still to be found in Cologne Cathedral? The answer is yes.Yes this is it-the reliquary where the Magi have their bones preserved for ever.
This lead on to questions about what other relics associated with the nativity are still around. There are huge numbers of relics around including large numbers of more or less everything.
For example the heads of two apostles are on display in St Peters Basilica in Rome if you have very, very good eyesight. (They are high above the Basilica behind bars).
Every altar in the Catholic church has a space underneath where a relic is kept. The Catholic Churches position is basically that if they help in veneration then that's OK. If they give rise to unhelpful interest and mockery then the Church does not wish this.
The one area which has been very troublesome to the Church is the "Holy Prepuce" i.e. Christ's Foreskin. Jewish boys are circumcised 8 days after their birth following the old testament instructions. The Catholic Church was nothing if not literal, so if Christmas day is on the 25th of December, then the circumcision must have happened on January 1- hence the Feast of The Circumcision on that day. Also by that logic Mary became pregnant on the 25th of March, known as Lady Day or the feast of the Annunciation (i.e. when her pregnancy was announced by the Angel). Christ ascended to heaven bodily according to the Church so there can be no relics of his body left. However the foreskin, milk teeth, umbilical cord and blood are theoretically available as relics. There are numerous examples of these items around.
Over the years these relics have given rise to a prurient interest and knowledge of their very existence is frowned upon. Obviously the foreskin is the item which has given rise to the most prurient interest and this is most heavily suppressed. At one point there were meant to be 18 surviving examples. Which rather proves that there were a lot of fakes. The locations reported are in Rome St John Lateran, St James Compostella Spain, Anvers St Corneille at Compeigne, Our Lady of the Dove in Chartes, Cathedral of Puy en Velay. Coulombs, Charraux, Hildesheim, Antwerp. Since you will not see them (and why should you want to?) it is difficult to gain external authentication.
The one at St John Lateran was declared authentic in the 16th century only to be stolen and taken to Calcata near Viterbo, ending up in the Church of SS Cornelius. Following ridicule a papal decree of 1900 confined the showing of the foreskin to the annual feast of the circumcision and prohibited all publicity. The Calcata prepuce was again reported stolen in 1984. The rumour is that the Priest disposed of it to save further embarrassment.
If you get interested in relics (and there is no law against it - yet) you will find there are three classes of relics and two classes of bodies and bits (those that are incorrupt (ie haven't rotted) and those that have been subject to normal wear and tear). I have suggested a few web sites to start you off. It's all a bit well....weird. References Try the following links