Back on Maundy Thursday, I became aware that the Holy Grail had been found“again,” as the National Post quipped. The comment alludes to the fact that numerous pretenders to the Grail have been championed over the centuriestwo hundred such “grails” exist in Europe alone, as the Guardian notes. The most recent claimant to the titleoutlined in a new book entitled Kings of the Grailis a goblet at a basilica in Leon, Spain.
English culture is saturated with Grail lore, from medieval legends of King Arthur to contemporary re-imaginings like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Common to many of these tales is the idea that the Grail possesses supernatural powers. In Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, for example, it provides King Arthur’s court with miraculous food and drink. The recent influx of visitors to see the newly-christened grailthe Guardian article above reports the basilica had to remove the cup from public display as the room was too small to accommodate the crowdscan be attributed in part, no doubt, to the belief that a pilgrimage to see it might just earn one a miracle.
To be sure, God has at various points in the past used physical objects to convey his miraculous power. We think of Moses’ staff held aloft as the Red Sea parted (Exodus 14); the bronze serpent which brought healing to the Israelites afflicted by poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:4-9); handkerchiefs touched by Paul which healed the sick and possessed (Acts 19:11-12); and even the mud which Jesus applied to a blind man’s eyes at his healing. God has often chosen physical means by which to mediate his power. The Incarnation itself is this concept writ large: God places Himself into mortal flesh, so that in Christ we may truly see “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
Lutherans like myself should not, therefore, simply deny the possibility that this or that physical objector relic, if you willmight be used by God to convey miraculous power. He’s done it before; he can do it again if he so chooses. But there is a danger in putting too much stock in such relics, even if they are what they purport to be. One can easily slip from faith in the God who wrought wonders through an object to an idolatrous faith in the power of the object itself. This is precisely what occurred in the case of the bronze snake mentioned earlier. We read that in Hezekiah’s time it became necessary to destroy the snake, for the Israelites had begun to honor as if it had power itselfas if it were, in fact, a god (2 Kings 18:4).
If the cup used at the Last Supper were ever proved to be found, the event would of course be of great significance to Christians. As a tangible connection to Jesus’ life on earth, it would bring comfort and peace to manymuch as visiting sites in the Holy Land already affects Christians today. The same is true for those who find comfort in viewing other relics purported to be connected to the life of Jesuspieces of what is said to be the True Cross, for example.
Even if a relic could be proved to be the Holy Grail to the exclusion of all other claimants, Christians would be wise to heed the words of Charles Williams. In his novel War in Heaven, the Grail is discovered in small rural church in England. The Archdeacon of Fardles finds in the Grail peace and joy. And while the vessel is presented in the novel as supernaturally powerful, the Archdeacon confesses, as we all ought to confess in such a moment, “Neither is this Thou.” Whatever worth the relic has, it is still not God. Seeking it for its own sake, apart from God, is to enter into idolatry.
At any rate, the Scriptures make clear that the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper was never the miracle in and of itself; the miracle of that night was what happened inside the cup. It’s a miracle that we, two thousand years later, still share in whenever we receive Holy Communion. Jesus spoke of the bread: “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). And he said also of the cup, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). This miraclethe bestowal of Christ’s body and blood to the communicant, and the forgiveness they bringstill happens in churches throughout the world today. Christ gives us his true body and blood as we eat the bread and drink the wine. And this miracle is in no way limited, even though the cup we use is not the Holy Grail of legend.
When it comes to relics, we cannot always be certain that this or that object has truly been chosen by God as a vessel of grace. Is this cup really the Grail? Is it another cup? Or was it lost to history shortly after the Last Supper? The history of Grail lore, like many relics, is long on assertions and short on certainty.
But there are some earthly means of God’s grace in which we can be certainnamely, Word and Sacrament. God gives us his Word in human language, printed on real paper with real ink, repeated aloud by real human voices. That God’s Word can be put in human tongues is indeed a miraclea miracle through which God promises to work another miracle: the creation of faith (Romans 10:17). So too, in baptism God works a miracle through earthly means. He mixes the promise of forgiveness with simple water, and through this sacrament makes us partakers in Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-4). The Lord’s Supper too is a miracle, as we have noted earlier: Christ gives us himself in the flesh and in the blood, as we take up man-made bread and wine in remembrance of him (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). These miracles are certainGod himself has promised to be active through these earthly means. God help us to treat them as the miracles they are.