Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The bloody miracle of St. Januarius

St. Januarius (d. c. 305)
Today is the feast day of St. Januarius - a third century bishop of Naples who, in or near the year 305, during the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, was martyred for his Catholic faith. He was young for a bishop, too - reputedly just shy of his 22nd birthday when he met his end. That's certainly impressive - to willingly give one's life for Christ. But this bishop is probably best known today (and has been for centuries) for the relic of his blood that was collected by his grief-stricken followers immediately after his beheading on this day over 1,700 years ago.

The blood of Januarius was lovingly collected as a relic and placed in a glass vial by one of ladies of his church (tradition preserves her name as Eusebia). Since that time, the vial of St. Januarius' blood has been a treasured possession of the church in Naples; a symbol of perseverance of the faith and a special memento of the local church's saintly martyr-bishop. The ancient glass vial is preserved in beautiful silver reliquary.

But what's super cool about this relic is this: each year, St. Januarius' blood, which is normally in a globule, solid-like state (it's pretty old, after all), liquifies. This occurs only three times each year and one of those times is this day, September 19, the day of his martyrdom.

Thousands of faithful and curiosity-seekers alike clamor to Naples on this day to witness the famed "miracle of the blood." The relics of St. Januarius (including some bones and the aforementioned vial of blood) are taken in solemn procession through the city from the city's cathedral to the Church of Santa Chiara (St. Clare). There, at the high altar of the church, the archbishop of Naples, holds up the vial of St. Januarius' blood so that all can see it's normal, solid state.  He then places the vial on the altar. After a time of prayer, the archbishop then lifts up the vial again and, typically, the blood has liquified. He moves and tilts the vial to demonstrate that the liquefaction has again taken place. When this happens, the crowds cheer and a local the announcement is greeted outside the church with a 21-gun salute by an honor guard. The blood is then exposed upon the altar for eight days of prayers and devotions. The latest news out of Naples is that it happened again today.

A white handkerchief signifies the liquefaction of St. Januarius' blood.
This tradition is creepy/cool Catholicism at its finest: the blood of an ancient, martyred saint has been preserved for centuries as a symbol of the faith and, through an unexplainable, regularly-occuring phenomenon which defies reason and scientific explanation, continues to excite the faithful and inspire hope in the promises of Christ. It's a perfect example of popular Catholic devotion that can make you cringe and tingle with excitement all at the same time. It's raw, gritty and, yet, strangely endearing.

So, remember St. Januarius today. Remember his fealty and his boldness to proclaim the love of Christ, even when to do so meant sure death. Remember, too, the mysterious providence of God who uses all the elements of this world, often in mysterious ways, to continually call us back to faith and to a life of deeper devotion to Christ and the Church.