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15 May 2006
In Search Of The Holy Foreskin
by Paul A.

Last week we learned that as a child of Jewish parents, Jesus would have been circumcised according to Jewish custom. Now, I know what you're thinking, "Holy cow! If Jesus was circumcised, his foreskin must still be around, right?" Well, maybe. All we can say for sure is that something purported to be the foreskin of the baby Jesus is out there somewhere. Or it was at any rate. The last time anyone saw the putative prepuce it was lying in a jewel encrusted box in a church in Calcata, Italy. Whether it still exists depends on the motive of the thieves who made off with it one night in 1983. If the thieves wanted a bit of Him as a keepsake to show off to their pals, there's a chance it might still be around. But if they just wanted a jewel encrusted case to pawn for a fix, it's likely that the last remaining bit of the earthly Jesus is gone for good.

The story of the Holy Foreskin is one of the strangest in Christendom. And that's saying something, as Christendom has seen some pretty weird stuff (stigmata, bleeding crucifixes and weeping statues, to name just a few). We are after all - let's not be shy about this - talking about a piece of Jesus' dick, preserved in reliquaries and paraded through the streets for the annual "Feast of the Circumcision." For a religion that from its inception (the anti-sex thing started with St. Paul) denounced sexuality in pretty much every form, to embrace something so fetishistic, seems incongruous at best. The rationale for it seems to be rooted both in the Jewish obsession with circumcision and Christian belief in Jesus' corporeal ascension. If Jesus rose bodily to Heaven, there presumably wouldn't be any part of him left as a keepsake except... well... his baby foreskin. And while it may seem absurd that any mind would engage the thought for more than a second or two, the fate of Jesus' foreskin was apparently much debated in the decades and centuries following his death.

Much of the debate centered on what is the true form of human perfection. Circumcised or uncircumcised? If it's uncircumcised, then Jesus, as perfection embodied, must have had his foreskin restored to him upon resurrection. But what about the foreskin removed in infancy? Was it resurrected too? On Easter morning did it suddenly, ahem, rise up from wherever it lay? These may seem like incredibly bizarre questions but the fate of the foreskin was in fact taken very seriously. It was finally resolved when theologians realized that the detached foreskin was really no different than the detached hair and fingernail trimmings of Jesus. So Jesus' foreskin seemed destined to remain in the earthly realm. But what became of it?

According to Jewish custom, the foreskin should have been buried in the ground shortly after it was removed. If that is indeed what happened, then we can assume that the discarded piece of flesh would have had a pretty short shelf-life; perhaps days, or weeks at the most. But according to one legend, the foreskin was instead kept by Jesus' mother Mary until Jesus' death, whereupon it was given to Mary Magdelane. In another legend, attributed to the revelations of St. Brigitta of Sweden, the Virgin Mary appeared in a dream and told Brigitta that she gave the foreskin to the apostle John. Why Mary would keep the foreskin in the first place is unknown, but perhaps she had an inkling her Son was going to be a very big deal someday and who knows, somebody might want it.

Fast forward a few hundred years to circa 800 CE. The Byzantine Empress, Irene, gives the foreskin to Charlemagne on the eve of his coronation. Where Irene got the foreskin from is anybody's guess. Charlemagne claims the foreskin arrived via an angelic courier but the fact that Irene had good reason to suck-up to Charlemagne (her power slipping and she was deposed in 802 CE), lends credence to the more earthly version. Charlemagne then gave the putative prepuce to the church where it remained in the private possession of the Popes.

It should be noted that this particular prepuce was not the only pretender to the title of Holy Foreskin. At various points during the Middle Ages there were at least a dozen and perhaps as many as fifteen "genuine" foreskins in circulation. This was not unusual. There was a huge market for religious relics during the Middle Ages. Desiderius Erasmus, the 15th century Dutch humanist noted wryly that so many pieces of the true cross were in circulation that Jesus must have been crucified on a whole forest. Martin Luther wondered why there were 26 burial sites for the 11 apostles - in Rome alone. But of all the relics in circulation, none was as prized as the Holy Foreskin. Given the potential value of this little bit of skin and the ease with which one could be produced, it's perhaps something of a miracle that they weren't being hawked on every street corner. There were enough proffered though, that a kind of after-market developed in experts who could presumably divine (by tasting it, apparently) whether or not the article was the "real deal." Of the other claimants to the original vestige of the body of Christ, the most notable were to be found in the cathedrals of Le Puy-en-Velay, Santiago do Compostela, Antwerp and churches in Besancon, Metz Hildesheim and of course, Calcata, Italy.

Perhaps because of its pedigree, the Charlemagne foreskin housed at the Lateran Basilica, was considered by the Catholic Church to be the most genuine of the genuine relics. It was said to give off a sublime fragrance. A story is told in the Journal L'Excommunier of a priest who, “impelled by curiosity," broke off a small piece. "Instantly a dreadful tempest broke over the palace... peels of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning, then a sudden darkness covered the entire country." Moral: You don't wanna be messing with Jesus' foreskin.

While interest in, and worship of, religious relics continued through the nineteenth century; beginning in 1900 and especially following the Second Ecumenical Council (1962-65), the Catholic Church de-emphasized the importance of relics and suggested that the Holy Foreskins encouraged "irreverent curiosity." Excepting the Holy Prepuce of Calcata, foreskins were no longer paraded about on the Feast of the Circumcision. Now that the foreskin of Calcata is gone, what remains of the other foreskins? A BBC documentary aired a few years ago could find not a trace of the original claimants. Were they thrown out? Are they sitting at the back of someone's sock drawer? No one knows. Or more likely they know, but they're not telling. After all, who really wants to know except the irreverently curious? And we all know what the Catholic Church thinks of them.




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