Hannukah in August?

Statue of Moses by Michelangelo, in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. The relics of the Maccabees were kept in this same church.

The veneration of the Maccabean martyrs is unique in the Judeo-Christian tradition: they are the only martyrs commemorated by Jews and Christians alike. The seventh chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees (in the Old Testament) tells the story of seven faithful Jewish brothers who maintained their fidelity to the Law of God in the face of persecution during the tyranny of Antiochus IV in the second century B.C. The New Testament book of Hebrews commends these martyrs of Maccabees as exemplars of living faith (Heb 11:35).

These seven Jewish brothers and their mother were arrested and ordered to eat the un-kosher flesh of a pig. The horrific murder of these Maccabean martyrs was so terrible and gruesome that we derived an English word from it—-macabre.

The festival of Hanukkah in December celebrates the revolt led by the Maccabees against the Syrian emperor Antiochus IV. Christians have long commemorated the Maccabees on August 1 and the relics of the 7 Maccabee brothers, with their mother and teacher were long kept in the Church of St. Peter’s Chains (Rome). The relics were sent to Germany to be housed in a church in Cologne (the same city where the relics of the Magi are kept); evidently the Maccabean relics had been kept in Cologne before they had been sent to Rome.

By keeping the Maccabean relics and the statue of Moses in the Church of St. Peter’s Chains, we can see the connection between the Law of Moses and those Maccabean martyrs who died for refusing to abandon that Law. Even more, their memory is joined with the imprisonment and eventual martyrdom of the Apostle Peter. (We know that the festival of Hanukkah was still fairly new in the first century AD but that Jesus celebrated it with the apostles in John 10:22-23.)

You can find a very interesting article (in German!) here about the relics of the Maccabees that includes close-up photos of the golden reliquary which contains their bones. (If you open the page using Chrome, it will offer to translate the page for you–I want to thank my daughter Rebekah for teaching me that trick!)

The reliquary itself is fascinating. It was apparently made in 1500; it is a wooden box in the form of a church, covered with gilded copper plates. The walls of the shrine and top portions are composed of 40 scenes in which the story of the Maccabee brothers and their mother is placed in parallel with the suffering of Christ and His mother Mary. One of the most obvious examples is the contrast of the flagellation of the Maccabee brothers and the flagellation of Jesus. On the front of the shrine is the Coronation of Mary and the Coronation of the Maccabees, while on the back the Ascension of Christ is depicted with the heavenly glorification of the Maccabees.

The shrine for the Maccabees’ relics in St. Andrew’s Church (Cologne, Germany).

Drip, drip…Blood Relics

The blood relic of St. Januarius (San Gennaro) in the cathedral of Naples.

The blood relic of St. Januarius (San Gennaro) in the cathedral of Naples.

This year’s festival of San Gennaro in New York’s Little Italy will be held on September 10-20, 2015. The festival marks one of the three days each year when the relic of St. Januarius’ blood in Naples liquefies during its display for public veneration. It turns out that there are other saintly blood relics in that part of Italy (surrounding Naples) that liquefy on the feast day of each particular saint, the most important being those of John the Baptist and Saint Panteleimon (a popular 4th century doctor-martyr).

The blood of the saint in question (usually an early martyr) is often sopped up with a cloth at the time of the saint’s execution and then placed in a glass ampule (small vial) which is then placed in a reliquary or monstrance for display [see the photo above]. On the feast day, the reliquary is brought out and the presiding cleric tilts the reliquary to demonstrate that the relic is dry and solid. He places the reliquary on the altar and the faithful celebrate the Eucharist or offer other prayers. At the conclusion, the presiding cleric again lifts the reliquary and tilts it, demonstrating that the relic has liquefied.

The first certain date of the liquefaction of St. Januarius’ blood is 1389. Over the following two and a half centuries official reports began to appear declaring that the blood spontaneously melted, at first once a year, then twice and finally three times a year. During times of distress, the relic would be carried in procession around Naples and has been credited with saving the city from explosions and eruptions from Mount Vesuvius.

Blood has always been considered an especially potent connection to the person whose blood it is. Blood was also considered the “life” of the person or animal and so to offer a few drops of blood in a rite was to offer the whole person or beast. Blood offerings were among the most valuable gifts to be offered to a god or goddess and the more blood offered, the more the god “owed” the worshipper. The more blood offered also usually meant the more horrific the request being made of the god or the more horrible the god who was being worshipped.

Blood was also said to give a temporary sort of life back to the dead. Among the ancient Greeks, ghosts were said to be whispering, gibbering shadows but if they licked up blood they could speak and think clearly again for at least some time.

A fascinating discussion of the blood relics in and around Naples can be read here.