Sacred object, holy quest

The Holy Grail is unique in our language — it is the only sacred relic of the Catholic Church to become a popular English expression.  

When someone refers to something as “the holy grail,” he or she means a high ideal, or a thing that has been the object of a long-term quest. For example, for a music student, a recital at Carnegie Hall would be a personal holy grail. 

The relic known as the Holy Grail is the cup or chalice that Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper. Because it was used at the first Mass, because it held the Precious Blood of the Lord, and because the next day that Precious Blood would be spilled on the cross for the salvation of the world, the desire to find and possess the Holy Grail was particularly intense during the Middle Ages, when churches and monasteries competed to acquire relics.  

Holy Grail in England

Sometime during the early Middle Ages, perhaps as early as the sixth century, legends began to grow up around the Holy Grail. Dating the origin of the legends is difficult, because in most cases the original manuscripts have been lost or destroyed. The legends as we have them today are preserved in much later copies.  

The oldest Grail legend ties the relic to St. Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph, you will recall, was a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem and a secret disciple of Our Lord. On the first Good Friday, Joseph went to Pontius Pilate and requested the body of Jesus, so he could give it decent burial. Pilate granted Joseph permission to remove the Lord’s body from the cross. From Calvary, Joseph and Nicodemus, another secret disciple, carried the body of Jesus to a rock-cut tomb Joseph had prepared for his own day of burial. This story can be found in the Gospels and is completely reliable. Now we venture into the realm of legend. 

According to this legend, on Good Friday, Joseph stood below the cross and collected some of Our Lord’s blood in the cup he had used the previous night at the Last Supper. When Joseph took the relic home, he found that he had enough of the Precious Blood to fill two cruets. 

In the early years of the Church, Joseph left his home and traveled to Britain. It is said that he was a merchant who often sailed to Britain to import tin and other metals back to Judea. The legend goes on to tell us that Joseph was an uncle of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that on one of his business trips to Britain he brought the Boy Jesus along with him. This part of the legend was the inspiration for William Blake’s poem, “Jerusalem.” The first verse reads: 

And did those feet in ancient time 

Walk upon England’s mountains green: 

And was the holy Lamb of God, 

On England’s pleasant pastures seen! 

The story tells us that he settled at modern-day Glastonbury, where he built a chapel and enshrined inside it the cruets of the Precious Blood and the Holy Grail. Archaeological evidence at Glastonbury suggests that there was a settlement here, perhaps of Christians, by 443, which reinforces the tradition that Glastonbury was one of the earliest, if not the first, Christian communities in Britain. 

Tales of King Arthur

It was French poet Chrétien de Troyes (died 1191) who connected the Holy Grail with the story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. About the year, 1185 he wrote a lengthy poem titled “Perceval: The Story of the Grail,” in which several of Arthur’s knights dedicate themselves to finding the cup of Christ. 

In Chrétien’s story, St. Joseph of Arimathea’s descendants have guarded the Holy Grail for centuries in a remote castle in North Wales called Corbenic. Three of King Arthur’s knights — Sir Perceval, Sir Lancelot and Sir Galahad — find it there. But once he arrives at Corbenic, Sir Perceval fails to inquire after the relic. Sir Lancelot also finds the castle, but because he had an adulterous affair with Arthur’s queen, Guinevere, he is only permitted to see the Holy Grail briefly from a distance. But Sir Galahad, who is a model of piety, purity, innocence and courage, is permitted to enter the Grail Chapel and contemplate the relic. Now that the quest has been accomplished, both the Holy Grail and Sir Galahad’s soul are taken up to heaven. 

Holy Grail in Spain

Yet another legend ties the Holy Grail to St. Lawrence, the Roman deacon who was roasted alive on a grill. According to this story, St. Peter brought the cup to Rome, where it was passed down among the popes who used it when they said Mass. In 258, Pope St. Sixtus I was arrested and martyred. To save this precious relic from being desecrated or destroyed by the Romans, the deacon St. Lawrence sent the Holy Grail to friends in Spain. It has remained in Spain ever since, and the Cathedral of Valencia claims to possess this treasure. In Valencia the cup is known as el Santo Caliz, the Holy Chalice, and it is enshrined in its own chapel in the cathedral. The Holy Chalice even has its own feast day, celebrated on the last Thursday of October. 

Holy Grail church
The cathedral in Valencia, Spain, has a chapel dedicated to the chalice believed to be the Holy Grail. Newscom photo

The cup is made of agate, 3.5 inches in diameter and stands about 7 inches high; it is mounted on a gold base. In 1960, Spanish archaeologist Antonio Beltran examined the Holy Chalice; he declared that it was made in Judea or perhaps Egypt, and dated it between the fourth century B.C. and the first century A.D. 

In 1982, Pope John Paul II used the Holy Chalice when he celebrated Mass in Valencia. In 2006, during his visit to Valencia, Pope Benedict XVI also used the Holy Chalice when he celebrated Mass. Neither pope made any statement regarding the authenticity of the relic, nor does the fact that two popes used the chalice amount to a formal papal statement of the cup’s authenticity. 

Are any of these stories regarding the Holy Grail reliable? Probably not. But on the other hand, let’s not write off the myth-makers as shameless frauds out to delude the faithful. During the Middle Ages, the desire to have a physical link to Christ and the Blessed Mother was incredibly intense, so if there was a local legend that a certain old cup was the Holy Grail, there were plenty of people willing to believe it, because that cup gave them a physical connection to Jesus, to the Last Supper and to the first Mass. The same impulse exists today. Among collectors of Lincoln memorabilia, the holy grail is a strand or two of the Great Emancipator’s hair. There are quite a few “Lincoln” hairs in quite a few private and public collections, and not all of them are authentic, yet whenever a strand purporting to be Lincoln hair appears on the market, it always find a buyer. 

Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Why such a fuss over the actual cup Jesus used? Everyday, at every Mass, the chalice is sanctified by the Body and Blood of Christ.” That is perfectly true, of course. But let’s be charitable with our friends in Valencia, who are convinced that they have the tremendous privilege of safeguarding the actual Holy Grail. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of “Saints Preserved: An Encyclopedia of Relics” (Image Books, $16) and “Patron Saints” (Our Sunday Visitor, $14.95).