Believe it or not, the Holy Grail actually exists … probably … maybe — but in the way that neither Sir Galahad nor Dan Brown ever imagined.
The Holy Grail is the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Fanciful and romantic medieval literature, such as Robert de Boron’s Joseph d’Arimathie, Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, le Conte du Graal and Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, ascribe magic properties to it.
Many unlikely places around the world have suggesed they possess the chalice used by Christ, including a hill in England known as Glastonbury Tor, Nova Scotia and Accokeek, Md. But historical scholars suggest that if the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper exists, it’s most likely the one reserved at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Valencia, Spain.
This week on Holy Thursday, when Christians recount the words the Lord used at the Last Supper instituting the Eucharist — “This is my body. … This is the cup of my blood” — it’s worthwhile recounting the history of how the grail may have gotten to this Spanish port city on the Mediterranean Sea.
Pope Benedict XVI used the chalice when he celebrated Mass at the 2006 World Meeting of Families in Valencia. Pope John Paul II used it during his 1982 visit to the city.
Valencia’s sacred chalice is made up of two parts. The polished stone vessel on top is supposed to be the cup of the Last Supper. It is made of dark brown agate and measures 6.5 inches tall and 3.5 inches wide. Archeologists say it dates back to the first century B.C. and is of eastern origin, from Antioch, Turkey, or Alexandria, Egypt.
The part of the chalice that the cup rests upon was made during the medieval period. The chalice’s stem and handles are made of fine gold, and its alabaster base is decorated with pearls and other gems.
Msgr. Jaime Sancho Andreu, president of the liturgy commission of the Archdiocese of Valencia, believes the first popes celebrated Mass with the same chalice that Jesus used. He points to the Roman Canon — which dates to the second century and specifically refers to the early popes using the chalice as opposed to merely any chalice, saying at the moment of consecration that Christ took “this glorious chalice in his holy and venerable hands.”
Another manuscript, written by St. Donatus, spoke of how Pope Sixtus II, killed during Emperor Valerian’s persecution in Rome, gave the Holy Grail to Deacon Lawrence in 258 to protect it from the emperor. St. Lawrence was a native of Valencia, and, thus, it would not be inconceivable that he brought it to his hometown to keep it safe.
Though some will claim differently, the Holy Grail legends did not begin with Arthurian tales. In fact, this particular chalice was already in Spain long before the legends started. Later, medieval writers created a false but persistently popular etymology for sangréal, an alternative name for “Holy Grail.” In Old French, san graal or san gréal means “Holy Grail” and sang réal means “royal blood.” This pun was played up in Dan Brown’s nonsensical and sensationalistic novel The Da Vinci Code.
Rabbi Arthur Steinberg of Temple Sinai in Portsmouth, Va., told me of the importance of the kiddush, the cup reserved for the Jewish liturgy of Passover and Sabbath services.
“Many Jews in the second large wave of immigrants to America in the late 1800s,” he said, “carried with them two objects of great liturgical importance: the pa-moat, or candlesticks, and the kiddush.”
If Jewish immigrants hoped to preserve their culture and faith by retaining these religious items, it follows that the apostles would have done the same. Their faith in Christ would have prompted them to preserve the cup he blessed by using it at Mass.
The cathedral housing this sacred object, St. Mary of Valencia, is an overwhelming Gothic structure, with an octagonal bell tower capped with an eight-sided dome.
The church was built on the remains of a mosque that had been built upon the ruins of a razed Visigothic Catholic cathedral. It was consecrated in 1238 by the city’s first bishop, Pere d’Albalat.
I arrived at the cathedral before the evening prayer service dedicated to the Holy Grail. During exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, prayers referring to the grail are chanted, and Mass follows. The services are held each Thursday in honor of Holy Thursday, when the first Mass was offered by Christ.
The Holy Grail is reserved in its own chapel, which was built between 1356 and 1369. It was initially separate from the rest of the cathedral, but was brought under the same roof in 1459, when the nave was expanded. The chapel is about 50 square feet in area, with a 40-foot-high ceiling. The grail is reserved in a reliquary in the shape of a tabernacle in the center of a magnificent marble altarpiece.
Relics aren’t simple mementos or souvenirs; they are tangible evidence of individuals and the events surrounding them. Like the Shroud of Turin, or any of the other relics associated with Christ, we might never know the true provenance of the chalice with 100% certainty. But, ultimately, I believe it doesn’t matter. Instead of presuming upon the chalice’s historicity, it is better that we view it as a religious aid or focus.
I stood before what might be the very chalice touched and sanctified by his blood and his sacrifice and closed my eyes. I felt gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice and for the communion of believers he created by his message.
Catholic News Service contributed to this article.
Angelo Stagnaro writes
from New York.
The Cathedral of St. Mary
46003 Valencia, Spain
Planning Your Visit
Valencia has some of the best weather in Spain, as it’s on the Mediterranean coast. The heat can be intense, but the humidity is ameliorated by the ocean breeze. Masses are on Sundays at 8, 9, 10 and 11 a.m., noon, and 1, 6, 7 and 8 p.m. There are also Masses on Saturday evenings, anticipating Sunday, at 6, 7 and 8 p.m. On weekdays, there are also Masses throughout the day.
Valencia has a modern airport and more than enough hotels to accommodate even the largest pilgrimage tours. The city can serve as an excellent base for exploring the other important towns in the area. Valencia is made for walking, and getting lost there is a great treat.