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The real mystery is the Real Presence
"The Grail Code satisfies the hunger that people have for knowledge of this mystery. The true Grail bears witness to a divine gift that exceeds even the deepest human longing.”
—Scott Hahn, author of The Lamb’s Supper and Hail, Holy Queen
The Holy Grail stories possess a mysterious power that has seized the human imagination for centuries. They tell of a great secret finally revealed, of ...
The real mystery is the Real Presence
"The Grail Code satisfies the hunger that people have for knowledge of this mystery. The true Grail bears witness to a divine gift that exceeds even the deepest human longing.”
—Scott Hahn, author of The Lamb’s Supper and Hail, Holy Queen
The Holy Grail stories possess a mysterious power that has seized the human imagination for centuries. They tell of a great secret finally revealed, of a surprising answer to the most profound questions, of a hidden mystery that satisfies our deepest longings. Writers, poets, artists, composers, and filmmakers have pursued the Grail for 1,700 years. The great quest drives the legends of King Arthur, propels Indiana Jones’s greatest adventure, and keeps many people turning the pages of The Da Vinci Code .
These tales of quests and miracles and of honor and betrayal have captivated humankind for so long, say the authors of The Grail Code , because the stories really do touch the deepest parts of our hearts. They reveal our innate yearning to know Christ, to be in communion with the Divine. What we’ve lost in the pop-culture transformations of the Grail is what made it holy in the first place: the intimate link with the Eucharist.
The Grail Code is a literary and theological detective story, centuries in the making, that ends where the Grail legends began—in the room where Jesus gathered his closest friends for the last time, spoke blessed words, broke bread, and shared a sacred cup.
The Ancient Mystery and the Real Presence
Are we worthy to achieve the Grail? Are we ready to walk with God in paradise?
Even today, millions of people thirst for the Holy Grail. We see the image of it everywhere, in our favorite books and movies. It’s a symbol of everything that’s mysterious and desirable. And at its heart is the greatest mystery of all: the mystery of the Eucharist—of God with us, of Christ’s real presence—body, blood, soul, and divinity.
But too often we lose our way when we begin the historical phase of our quest for the Grail. We end up mired in a slough of faux conspiracy theories, or we chase ever wispier sprites of Celtic mythology. Carelessly we empty the Grail of its precious blood, and when that happens we lose the Grail itself.
The real story of the Holy Grail is a true adventure, with plenty of surprising twists and unexpected discoveries. It’s a long journey through the back streets of history, from the Palestine of Jesus Christ to Britain in the shadow of the Dark Ages, from the colorful courts of medieval France to the grim insanity of Hitler’s Germany. And the prize waiting for us at the end of our adventure is nothing less than a communion with Jesus Christ himself.
That’s what makes the journey worthwhile. When we see it through the lens of the Grail stories, we realize that the Christian life itself is a perilous but glorious adventure. The Grail legends touch something deep in the human heart, something that was placed there by the God who created the world and redeemed it, and who gave the world his only Son. That’s the real mystery of the Grail, and that’s the beginning of our quest.
And so we begin.
Chapter the First
In Which Our Enterprise Begins with a Question and an Answer
This is a book about longing and desire—our longing for the unattainable, and our burning desire to attain it anyway.
Human longing is older than history, and it drives history. It is part of our very creation, a hole in our hearts so big that nothing can fill it. Like a spiritual DNA, it goes with being human. It may be quieted for a time. It may be damped down for a time. But the code is there, driving us on to seek whatever might fill that hole.
When we do find something that seems for a moment to fill that interior chasm, one phrase springs instantly to our lips: we have found the Holy Grail.
The Insatiable Longing
What is at the root of our undying desire? Why do thrill seekers jump out of airplanes? Why do tyrants destroy their countries in a single-minded pursuit of power? Why do firefighters rush into burning buildings even when the rescue seems hopeless? Why do suicide bombers blow themselves to bits in the name of their country or their religion? Why do martyrs die with hymns on their lips?
Isn’t it because they sense, at almost a preconscious level, that the ordinary things of this world—living and eating and sleeping—just aren’t enough?
The gods of the Canaanites, the Aztecs, and any number of other refined and sophisticated cultures demanded human sacrifice. Sometimes worshipers sacrificed their own children. Why? Were they just superstitious savages? Or were they looking for the right thing in the wrong way?
We, too, try to fulfill our deepest self in ways that satisfy us temporarily—with glory, money, thrills, sex. But our emptiness is infinitely bigger than our feverish activities and conquests.
The Buddhists say that earthly desires lead to enlightenment. They don’t mean, of course, that the way to reach enlightenment is by indulging every whim. They mean that our earthly desires point the way to what we’re really longing for. Our desire for power, wealth, sex, shiny cars, or whatever it is we think we really want is only an expression of the true hunger we are unable to name.
Christians have a similar saying: grace builds on nature. That deep and insatiable longing we all feel is implanted in us at creation. And although it can drive us to all kinds of sins, God will use it to pull us closer—if we consent.
That longing and that grace are really what the stories of the Holy Grail are about.
The Story of the Grail
The story of the quest for the Holy Grail has dominated the English-speaking world like no other myth or legend. Its elements even predate the English language. Poets, novelists, and filmmakers have told the story of the quest again and again: it doesn’t get old or tiresome or go out of style. The adventure of the pilgrimage is what everyone wants, but not nearly so much as the goal.
These days, most people know the Holy Grail from books like The Da Vinci Code and Holy Blood, Holy Grail, or from Monty Python. What we’ve lost in these pop culture transformations of the Grail is what made it holy in the first place. That original meaning is what this book seeks to unfold.
In popular entertainment we see all kinds of attempts at understanding the Grail.
The movie Excalibur tried very hard to give us a pagan grail. The secret that led to the Grail was simply this: “The king and the land are one.” The movie’s interpretation did give us one of cinema’s rivetingly beautiful moments: Arthur and his knights, roused from their lethargy, ride forth to their last battle, and the wasteland turns green and fertile in their path. But does anyone in our age of republics and constitutional monarchies actually believe that the king and the land are one? We have a hard enough time believing that we actually elected our congresses and parliaments. The message has nothing in it for us: it leaves us unsatisfied and wishing for something deeper.
The Da Vinci Code , by Dan Brown, gave us a reinterpretation of the Grail—as a holy bloodline, the lineage of Jesus Christ and his supposed wife, Mary Magdalene. It was already a popular idea long before the novel came out: Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln’s book Holy Blood, Holy Grail had been a best seller for twenty years, and Dan Brown took his Grail ideas from there. The reinterpretation gives us the lure of a deeply hidden secret that is centuries old, and the promise of enlightenment once we know the secret. That so many people have been enchanted with the notion proves it has some attractive power; the main problem with it is that the historical foundations of such a hypothesis are easily dismantled.
Other modern Grail stories have dwelled on the swashbuckling adventure of the quest but remained deliberately fuzzy about the nature of the Grail itself. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade gave us a Grail that seemed to have something to do with Christian legend and that—like the Grail in the best medieval romances—rewarded the worthy and punished the unworthy. “But choose wisely,” says the ancient knight who guards the Grail and dozens of decoy grails, “for as the true Grail will bring you life, the false grail will take it from you.” And soon enough, expensive special effects show us exactly what the knight means.
But Hollywood could not confront the whole force of the Christian symbolism in the Grail legends: we’re never quite sure what the Grail really means for Indiana Jones, and it’s just as well that the quest is entertaining enough to distract us from asking too many questions about the object of it. Asked what he found in the Grail, Indiana Jones’s father, Henry, says, “Illumination”—which really could mean anything. Practically speaking, neither he nor his son seems very much changed by meeting the Grail. And that’s a bit surprising when we consider that the whole purpose of seeking the Grail is usually to change the seeker’s life. If nothing is changed, then the longing is still there, unfulfilled.
Revived pagan mythology, anti-Christian propaganda, swashbuckling adventure—none of these give an adequate account of why the Grail legend has survived. After all, the empty Grail is just a cup.
Chapter the Second
Which Reveals the True Origin of the Holy Cup
Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
This is the question that begins our quest for the Holy Grail. Every seeker of the Grail must answer it: can I drink from the Grail?
Yet it seemed like such an odd question when it was first asked. Two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John—the “Sons of Thunder,” as he liked to call them—had asked him a favor. Or rather, as Matthew remembered it, their mother had asked it for them: “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”
James and John had been with Jesus for a long time already, and still they didn’t seem to know what they were looking for. They wanted something desperately enough that they were willing to give up everything and follow an itinerant preacher who always had to keep one step ahead of the authorities. They seemed to think their longing could be fulfilled by some position of power and honor in an earthly kingdom.
Instead of simply telling their mother that her wish was granted, or telling her to stop asking for ridiculous favors, Jesus grew suddenly solemn. He turned to James and John and addressed them directly.
“You do not know what you are asking,” he told them. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”
They probably didn’t understand the question. They may have been thinking of a royal banquet, and a little wine never hurt anybody. So they immediately answered, “We are able.”
We’ll see the same thoughtless enthusiasm at the beginning of every Grail quest. Our longing is so deep and desperate that it blinds us to the consequences of what we undertake.
Jesus answered, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matthew 20:20–23).
What an unsatisfying answer! It must have left them entirely baffled. The only thing they could possibly understand was that they were not being promised the posts of first and second minister in Jesus’ coming kingdom.
Still, at least they would drink from Jesus’ cup. They would have some important place in the kingdom, some position elevated above the common herd. Would that be enough to satisfy them?
During the next few days, James and John must have thought quite a bit about their positions in the coming kingdom. Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph, with cheering crowds carpeting his path with palm fronds and their own clothes, shouting, “Blessed is the king / who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). It must have seemed as though Jesus’ glorious kingdom was just around the corner.
Blood of the New Covenant
It quickly became clear that the coming of Jesus’ kingdom wasn’t going to be easy. The ruling powers were set against Jesus—even to the point that Jesus and his disciples had to make their Passover preparations in secret. At that Passover meal, Jesus seemed in an unusually somber mood. He told his disciples that one of them would betray him, which they could hardly believe.
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:22–24)
“This is my blood of the covenant.” It takes some imagination to hear those words the way the disciples originally heard them. We hear them every Sunday; the disciples heard them for the first time at the Last Supper, and they must have been both shocked and confused.
They recognized the allusion, of course. Centuries before, at Sinai, Moses gave the people of Israel the law that God had given him. Then he built an altar and sacrificed oxen on it. Half the blood he sprinkled on the altar; the other half he sprinkled on the people, binding them in a ritual covenant with God. “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words,” Moses announced (Exodus 24:8).
Blood was a powerful thing in the Scriptures: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11).
We can imagine how the disciples’ minds must have reeled when Jesus introduced these familiar words with a twist: “Blood of the covenant” could only mean something like the covenant ratified at Sinai, the covenant that was the basis of every aspect of Jewish life. And Jesus said it was his own blood. He was putting himself in the place of the sacrifice, giving them his own blood to make atonement for their souls.
And was he really asking them to drink it? That very passage from the law about blood making atonement went on to say, “Therefore I have said to the people of Israel: No person among you shall eat blood, nor shall any alien who resides among you eat blood” (Leviticus 17:12). The law against partaking of blood was so fundamental to the order of the cosmos that even the Gentiles were supposed to obey it.
It must have been almost too much for the disciples to take in. What were they thinking as the cup made its way around the table? Did some of them shiver as the cup approached them? Did some of them hesitate before drinking?
Could they drink the cup that Jesus was going to drink?
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus said as the cup was making its rounds, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). What did he mean by that?
And, as many readers over the centuries have wondered as they read the accounts of the Last Supper, what sort of cup was this that Jesus passed around?
The Secrets of the Cup
We can translate the Greek word for “cup” a number of ways. We can call the vessel a cup, a chalice, a bowl—even a rail, which originally comes from a Latin word for a shallow dish.
Jesus and his disciples were poor, so we might at first suppose that whatever cup they used was simple and cheap. On the other hand, they had borrowed a furnished dining room for the occasion. “Go into the city,” Jesus had told two of his disciples, “and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there” (Mark 14:13–15).
It all sounds a bit cloak-and-dagger: go into the city and look for the man with the jug; follow him (but don’t say anything) until he enters a house; then say the secret password, and someone will let you in. But this secrecy is hardly surprising: Jesus knew he was in imminent danger of arrest, and anyone who gave him aid and comfort might be in just as much trouble. This householder might have been one of the many well-to-do followers of Jesus—someone especially vulnerable to punishment by the authorities if it became known that he associated with the Teacher.
At least he was well-to-do enough to provide a furnished dining room. As such, it likely came with a cup suitable for an important ceremony like a Passover meal.
Ordinary drinking cups of the time were usually made of earthenware. But a ceremonial cup would probably be made of something more valuable: bronze, perhaps, or silver, or glass, or even gold, if the owner was rich enough. Many early Christian chalices were made of glass. Were the early Christians keeping alive the memory of the actual cup Jesus used? Or was glass just the most dignified thing they could get if the congregation couldn’t afford a gold chalice?
So the actual cup could have been almost anything. It could have been an ordinary drinking cup, or it could have been something quite expensive and ornate.
After the cup was passed, Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn. Jesus had many things to say to them, some of which they didn’t really understand. And there was an awkward little scene with Judas Iscariot, the treasurer of the group. “Do quickly what you are going to do,” Jesus said to Judas, and without a word, Judas got up and walked out into the night (John 13:27–30). What was that all about?
Then the group went out to the Mount of Olives. Almost certainly they left the room to be cleaned up later, either by themselves or by their host’s servants.
In a garden nearby, Jesus went a little way away from his disciples and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.”
It was a prayer of anguish; the “cup” he was about to drink would be a cup of unbearable suffering. “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (Luke 22:42, 44).
And suddenly Jesus was arrested by a squadron of Roman soldiers—with Judas Iscariot leading them—and the disciples scattered like sheep with no shepherd.
Sometime that night or the next day—while Jesus was being beaten and tortured, or while he was dying in agony on the cross—the dishes were cleaned up and put away.
Chapter the Third
In Which We Seek the Holy Cup and Find the Eucharist
Long after the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Jesus’ most devoted followers continued to meet in the upper room. In fact, it became the first Christian church. The house itself was one of the few buildings to survive the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70: St. Epiphanius, who wrote in the 300s, tells us that when Christians staggered back to the burned and ruined city, they found the place still standing and went back to their old habit of meeting there.
The owner of the house must also have been an enthusiastic Christian; otherwise he wouldn’t have risked so much to give Jesus and his disciples a place to meet. If the cup was part of the household furnishings, then it probably stayed with the house, and it belonged to a Christian.
Revealed in the Breaking of the Bread
It is quite likely that the Christians continued to use the cup when they repeated the ceremony that Jesus taught them at the Last Supper. This was the central ceremony of the Way, as they called their new faith. At this point, they had no other name for their practice. They didn’t think of it as a new religion; they thought of it as a better understanding of their religion—an understanding that included the wonderful knowledge that they were living in the age of the Messiah.
The Eucharist—a Greek word that means “thanksgiving”—was at the heart of their practice right from the beginning. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We notice right away that “the breaking of bread” comes first, before “the prayers.”
Luke illustrates what the breaking of bread meant to Jesus’ followers with a story of something that happened the day Jesus rose from the dead. Two of Jesus’ followers were walking along the road to Emmaus, a little village some distance outside Jerusalem. They had heard the strange story of the empty tomb, but they didn’t know what to make of it. While they were walking and talking gloomily about the death of their Teacher, they met a stranger who asked them what they were talking about.
“Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” asked one of them.
“What things?” the stranger asked.
“The things about Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. We can imagine them both talking at once, telling the ignorant stranger who the famous Jesus was, how they had expected him to be the Messiah, but how instead he had died in disgrace. They even told him the strange story of the empty tomb.
“Oh, how foolish you are,” the stranger said when they had finished their story, “and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” And, much to their surprise, he interpreted the story they had just told him in the light of Moses and the prophets, showing them how everything had been foretold.
When they reached Emmaus, it was already late, so they invited the stranger to stay with them for dinner. While he was eating with them, he took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to them. Then suddenly they knew who the stranger was. It was Jesus himself! They recognized him in the breaking of the bread. But as soon as they recognized him, he was gone. Or, rather, he was still there, but in a different way: they were left with the bread he had given them (Luke 24:13–35).
Salvation or Judgment
The first Christians had a powerful sense that Jesus was really present in the Eucharist—that the bread and wine really were his body and blood. The cup was a cup of salvation: it was the Savior really coming to them.
What shall I return to the Lord
for all his bounty to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord . . .
I will offer to you a thanksgiving sacrifice
and call on the name of the Lord. (Psalm 116:12–13, 17)
This psalm is used in Christian liturgies all over the world, and Christians everywhere recognize the Eucharist in the “cup of salvation” and “thanksgiving sacrifice.”
But the cup of salvation can also be a cup of judgment.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. (1 Corinthians 11:27–29)
It is not a light or easy thing to take the cup of salvation. On the contrary, only the worthy may drink from the Grail. Paul is not exaggerating here; he believes this is literally a matter of life and death. “For this reason many of you are weak and ill,” he continues, “and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:30).
For the worthy, who discern the Lord’s body in the Eucharist, it is the communion of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. For the unworthy, it is judgment. That’s the way the Holy Grail works.
Nor is it always easy even for the worthy to drink the cup. “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” The cup that Jesus drank was crucifixion and death. Many of his most beloved followers would have to drink the same cup.
But suffering was not a thing Christians dreaded the way other people did. It could be a joyous sacrifice. In fact, the early Christians often spoke of their own sufferings in language that makes it clear they were thinking of the sacrifice of the Eucharist.
“I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come,” Paul wrote to his friend Timothy (2 Timothy 4:6). Paul was in prison in Rome, waiting for the time when he, too, would drink the cup that Jesus drank. Nevertheless, he did not resent his suffering. Like other Christians facing martyrdom, he remembered what Jesus had said: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
“We Cannot Live without the Mass”
In all the best Grail stories, and in all the best Christian art, the Holy Grail is a Eucharistic image. Even pop culture (think of Indiana Jones) presents it to us as the cup of the Last Supper. The Grail stands for the central mystery of the Christian liturgy, and for the central promise of the Christian faith—the promise that our longing to meet God has a fulfillment.
The central importance of the Eucharist was something Christians assumed. “We cannot live without the Mass,” one North African martyr told his persecutors in the reign of Diocletian, a notorious murderer of Christians.
That leads us back to the question of what happened to the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper.
An early Christian might have answered that what happened to it doesn’t matter at all. Every consecrated chalice was the Holy Grail, containing the true blood of the Lord. And every chalice was treated that way. Even when Christianity was a capital offense and most of its followers were poor, the Christians scraped together enough money to buy expensive fittings for their underground churches. When police raided one house-church, they confiscated quite a list of treasures, which were duly recorded by the court:
• 2 golden chalices
• 6 silver chalices
• 6 silver dishes
• 1 silver bowl
• 7 silver lamps
• 7 short bronze lamp stands, with lamps
• 11 bronze lamps on chains1
This was not extravagance. It was the only way these poor people knew of expressing their reverence for the Eucharist, which they literally valued more than their own lives.
About a century later, in St. Jerome’s time, the bishop of Toulouse sold off his church’s gold and silver to feed the poor. He had to use a wooden basket and a glass chalice to hold the Eucharist. Jerome defended him: “What can be more rich than the man who carries the body of Christ in a basket of wickerwork and the blood of Christ in a vessel of glass?”2
Jerome’s defense tells us that by his time, glass chalices were rare. A larger church, at least, was expected to have a golden chalice; there must have been quite a bit of grumbling in Toulouse when the bishop introduced a glass chalice. The reason is obvious: the people revered the blood of Christ so greatly that a glass chalice seemed almost blasphemously common. Jerome had to remind them that it was the blood that made the chalice precious, not the other way round.
As stoutly as Jerome defended the bishop of Toulouse and his cheap glass chalice, he also demanded a high standard of reverence for the Eucharistic vessels, no matter what they were made of. It was necessary, he wrote, to make the people understand “that the sacred chalices, veils, and other accessories used in the celebration of the Lord’s passion are not mere lifeless and senseless objects devoid of holiness, but that rather, from their association with the body and blood of the Lord, they are to be venerated with the same awe as the Body and Blood themselves.”3
Although the Eucharist was the holiest treasure, the vessels that carried it, by their office, were also holy treasures that demanded reverence. So we can easily imagine that some of the early Christians might have particularly treasured the cup that Jesus had used. Not only was it a vessel for the Eucharist, but it was also a rare memento of Jesus, who in his life had never accumulated much property.
But What Happened to the Cup?
If these early Christians maintained possession of the cup, they would have taken care to protect it when danger threatened, carrying it with them when they fled the city as the Roman legions relentlessly approached. Later, as the church grew more prosperous, the Holy Grail, as we might call the cup, would have been ever more precious as a relic of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today, when we have something we think of as an antique, we try to preserve it in as close to its original condition as possible. But in ancient times, and on through the Middle Ages, the common way of showing veneration for a precious relic was to surround it with rich ornamentation. Thus the Christians, as soon as they had the money and the freedom, built splendid churches on all the sites associated with the earthly life of Christ. Bits of bone from famous martyrs—infinitely more precious than diamonds to the Christians—were set like gems in elaborate fittings of gold. A relic might even accumulate multiple layers of ornamentation, as successive generations of donors expressed their veneration for the holy object.
If there was a real Holy Grail—a cup venerated by the early Christians as the cup used at the Last Supper—then it would eventually have become so encrusted with jewels and precious metals from the far corners of the earth that the original object would be hard to recognize. The cup would have been unchanged in essence but surrounded by a superstructure of ornamentation designed to draw attention to the beauty of its holiness.4
All this is simply speculation. In spite of the strong claims about some relics in various parts of Europe, we really have no idea what became of the cup that Jesus used. Whether or not the object still exists, the veneration and ornamentation that might have happened to the Holy Grail is exactly what did happen to the story of the Holy Grail. One generation after another added jewels from all kinds of unlikely sources until the thing seemed to have a completely different shape. But the essence—the original meaning of the Eucharist—was unchanged. The added layers of ornament only expressed centuries of veneration for the truth of the Eucharist.
And all the legends begin with one real historical character: Joseph of Arimathea.