Saturday, January 1, 2011

Happy Feast Of The Holy Circumcision!

I hope 2011 is behaving itself for you thus far.

Mine's been pretty sleepy.

Sleepy is good. A more energetic year might have chewed the couch and stained the carpet by now. "Let sleeping years lie" is an adage I'd like to see more people embrace.

If 2011 has already jumped up and left its mark on your household in an unfortunate way, well, you might take comfort in Jesus.

Or - to be more precise - you might take comfort in the knowledge that no matter how bad your new year may have started off being, it was almost certainly better than Jesus's first new year's day.

According to long-standing tradition, you see, it was on Jan 1 that Jesus was circumcised.

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but... I can think of few less appealing ways of starting a new year than having some strange man snip off a part of my genitals.

Incredibly, some people continue to celebrate this mutilation as The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ.

How did I ever make it this far in life without realizing that Christians are even weirder than I thought?

I probably wouldn't even know this now except for the fact that I've been reading David Farley's An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church's Strangest Relic in Italy's Strangest Town.

The relic being referred to in the title is Jesus's Holy Prepuce - a necessary byproduct of his alleged circumcision.

Farley's book is the only religion-related one I managed to read in the last year. That I just happen to have finished it yesterday - the very day before The Feast - seems too coincidental to be mere coincidence, doesn't it? Once again, it seems that the universe has arranged matters in a way calculated to really and truly drive home the point that Christians are, by and large, bonkers. Why does the universe hate them so? I must be sure to ask Pope Benedict the very next time I see him.

While you're waiting for me to pass along what he has to say, you might want to try reading Farley's book for yourself. It's quite amusing, especially if symptoms of insanity in your fellow human beings are more likely to make you smile than tremble.

Here's part of the summary posted at

Until one mysterious day in 1983, the foreskin of Jesus—once one of the Catholic Church's holiest of relics—lay nestled in a box in a small church in Calcata, a village in the hills of northern Italy. On that fateful day in December, however, priest Don Dario announced to his tiny congregation that the foreskin had disappeared. What happened to this holy relic? Who could have taken this piece of the divine that medieval saint Catherine of Siena was purported to have worn as a ring around her finger and about which writers as diverse as Joyce, Stendhal and José Saramago have written? In this humorous narrative, journalist Farley sets off to solve the mystery of the missing foreskin. Part travelogue, part mystery story and part religious history, Farley's tale involves local winemakers, actors and priests, many of whom are tight-lipped about the relic's disappearance. In 1900, the Vatican decreed that anyone who talked about the holy foreskin would face excommunication, and thereby cut off its status as a holy relic. Farley discovers that no one really knows whether this piece of holy skin ever existed in the first place, and that no one knows its whereabouts now.

It's a fascinating tale which not even Farley's meandering and often self-centered writing can ruin.

And it serves as a sharp reminder that one century's Absolute Unchanging Holy Truth is another century's cringe-inducing embarrassment to be swept under the rug and forgotten.

Quite apart from the huge, overarching absurdity of masses of prim and proper Catholic folk traveling long distances to bow down to and kiss what they believe to be part of the penis of gOd, the book is full of smaller absurdities that give added depth and heft to the madness.

Perhaps my favorite of these smaller absurdities comes on page 162 when Farley tells the story of Leo Allatius, a 17th century theologian who argued that Jesus's foreskin had ascended to heaven to become the rings of Saturn.

Farley's numerous reminders of the craze for relics are almost as deliciously wacky. Besides Jesus's amputated foreskin (of which there may have been as many as 18 at one time drawing pilgrims to various towns all across Europe), these relics included such things as vials of the Virgin Mary's breast milk. And her robe, her comb, her shoes, her girdle, her shroud, her handkerchiefs, her wedding ring - even her house (allegedly carried by angels from the Holy Land to the Dalmatian Coast on May 10, 1291).

At least 29 places claimed to have one of the four nails used in the crucifixion.

Spain's King Philip II allegedly had nearly 7500 relics of all kinds in his collection.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV's own personal collection supposedly included one of the breasts of Mary Magdalene. (Pilgrims seem to have been willing to pay big bucks for a glimpse.)

The crown of thorns - if Farley is to be believed - now rests in Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral. (Joseph's hammer, however, seems to have been lost forever. You might want to check your toolbox - just in case.)

One black marketer allegedly once even offered to sell a monk the head of John the Baptist... as a baby.

The monk might have been sorely tempted to buy it, too, since pieces of actual Holy Bodies were considered to be the next best thing to having Jesus himself patting you approvingly on the back.

For those who still believe in the power of shriveled bits of flesh to save them, perhaps no place is holier than the Church of Santi Vicenzo e Anastasio. Located in Rome directly across from the Trevi Fountain, it allegedly contains the hearts, livers, spleens, kidneys, and pancreases of every pope from Sixtus V (died 1590) to Leo XIII (died 1903). (If you go, you might want to take along your own can of air freshener so you and your companion don't have to share.)

If you're unwilling to settle for anything less than the very finger that Thomas allegedly stuck in Jesus's wound, however, you'll need to go to Rome's Basilica of Santa Croce.

All these miracle-inducing relics (and hundreds more) seem to have exercised an irresistible pull on countless Christians, especially in the days before the Reformation and John Calvin's snide comments about how Mary couldn't have produced all the vials of milk attributed to her had she been a cow. It wasn't until modern science and medicine came along, though, that even those in the Vatican started blushing at the inanity of it all.

Of course there remain those who have yet to hear that the Medieval Ages are over. If you happen to be one of them, I wish you a very Happy Feast of the Circumcision (and may you have ecstasy-inducing fantasies about actually eating the Holy Prepuce as Saint Agnes allegedly did).

As for me, I think I shall pass the rest of the day engaging in this other bit of revelry that I also only recently learned about:

Farmyards were the scene of New Year's Day celebrations in parts of medieval England wherein a baked flat cake was placed on one horn of the leading cow in a herd while everyone sang "Here's health to thee, Brownie, and to thy white horn/God send thy master a good crop of corn/Thee eat thy cake and I'll drink my beer/God send thy master a Happy New Year!" Brownie was then tickled until she tossed the cake to the ground. If the cake fell in front of her it bode well for the coming year. When it fell behind, the reverse could be expected. (The Book of Days; Elizabeth and Gerald Donaldson)

Here's hoping that all YOUR cow cakes fall in the right place today - and every day!


  1. Very amoozing. Doesn't it make you wonder why, if Jesus' dad was so perfect a creator, and if he required a sacrificial bit of skin, he didn't at least make it a pop top, in a humane way? As far as such a bit of skin not only being saved, but surviving and thriving in the middle eastern climate, without having been mummified... well, hmmmm. Not *too* likely. So, why are Christians so obsessed with relics, anyway? Isn't the Christian kingdom supposedly NOT of the flesh? And isn't there some (or didn't there used to be, anyway) a prohibition against any desecration of the body, as it all had to ascend to heaven, intact, or the jig was up? It's all SO contradictory, not to say nonsensical. And even gross. Petrified prepuces? Ew... Oh, well. Moo.

  2. John the Baptist's head as a baby.
    Oh em friggen gee.
    Step right up!

  3. Hey there. Thanks for your comments on my book.

    david farley

  4. Hey, David - thanks for stopping by! AND of course for writing this book in the first place. My December would have been *much* duller without it.