Searching for the Artifacts of Faith; Examining the Power and Mystery Surrounding Easter Relics, from the Holy Grail to Pieces of the Cross to the Controversial Shroud of Turin

Article excerpt

Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

During the last six months this country's mass media have discovered that old-time religion. For years references to religion among these blue-states keepers of the popular culture were limited to the usual hooting at "Islamic conservatives" or "right-wing Christians," but suddenly the elite media have caught on that God and traditional religious practice are subjects of great interest to many millions of Americans.

Maybe it has to do with money. Despite furious reviews by critics determined to sandbag it, Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ, already has taken in almost half-a-billion dollars worldwide at the box office and still is going strong. Even liberal readers helped to put The Da Vinci Code at the top of the best-seller charts, and the evangelical Left Behind series has set publishing records while making the great rapture and prophesies of Revelations seem as modern as this morning's newspaper. Yes, maybe it is all that money which has focused pop-culture attention on Christianity, resulting in TV news documentaries such as the Elizabeth Vargas special, Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci, and the Stone Phillips special report on The Last Days of Jesus, and Peter Jennings' Jesus and Paul: The Word and the Witness, with pre-broadcast publicity including a debate between Jennings and televangelist D. James Kennedy.

Most of these ventures engage issues that have raged worldwide in the centuries since the crucifixion of Jesus. What about differences among the Gospel accounts? Did Jesus survive Golgotha, marry and raise a family with descendants who survive to this day, as the new Gnostics say? Who really killed Christ?

As Christians celebrated Easter and Eastertide, Insight chose to reach past the cliches and debates of artists and theologians to examine some of the artifacts thought to have been touched by the divine: the relics of Easter.

"Then he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it all of you.'" (Matthew 26:27)

As the Gospels tell the story, Jesus and his disciples sat together for Passover dinner just before his seizure, trials, scourging and crucifixion. During this "Last Supper" Jesus breaks and passes bread, identifying it as his body, and then offers wine in a cup, which calls his blood. Besides being a moment of sharing food with friends, this moment initiated the Christian understanding of the Eucharist or Communion. According to the shared Christian theology, the blood and body of Christ were spilled and broken as atonement for the sins of all humanity. The issue of whether the bread and wine actually become the flesh and blood of Jesus before they are taken in remembrance still is debated by Christians, but their scholars are agreed that the original event took place.

The cup of Christ has taken on a life of its own in legend and mythology. Often referred to as the Holy Grail, its recovery has been the objective of adventurers and treasure hunters, its story the subject of novelists, painters and filmmakers. The comedy troupe Monty Python lampooned King Arthur in the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Fourteen years later Steven Spielberg sent Harrison Ford chasing the Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Mark Rose, executive editor of Archaeology magazine and a trained classical archaeologist, says that one such story comes from the personal journal of Arlculf, a seventh-century pilgrim to the Holy Land who wrote that, inside a chapel in Jerusalem, he beheld the chalice that Christ used at the Last Supper. The pilgrim describes the cup as a goblet made of silver to hold about a pint and having handles on either side.

Many other stories also make claims about the location of the Holy Grail, says Rose. One tells of a cup thought to be made of a huge emerald. Another insists the cup was looted from Byzantium during the fourth crusade and eventually ended up in Genoa, where it remains today. …