During the Middle Ages, fifteen churches claimed to have the foreskin of Christ. Pope Eugenius IV declared that Christians visiting the foreskin would be granted forty days indulgence. He did not specify which of the fifteen churches claiming to possess it had the real one, so the faithful were on their own.
It would be hard to decide. Nowhere in the New Testament is the Lord's foreskin described, so it would be difficult to determine any distinguishing features. Since it was removed from the infant Christ, it might, like the rest of Him, light up like a light bulb, attracting wise men and shepherds from miles away. Perhaps, from the time of Christ through the Middle Ages, it had been used as a light source by miners or spelunkers ignorant of its holy origin but nonetheless impressed by its usefulness as a lamp. A thousand years is a long time for even a Chernobylized foreskin to glow. Or maybe not. Though many pious homes use Jesus as a night light, the adult Christ Himself was not believed to be incandescent. The New Testament describes Him in glowing terms, but not in terms of glowing. If He did glow, the Roman's might've kept Him up on the cross longer as a street light.
The ability to perform miracles might be one criterion, but that'd be hard to be sure about, since people might be cured of their ills through belief alone, and not by the prepuce itself. Double-blind tests might be conducted, with the use of placebo foreskins, but that's a dangerous game to play with the faithful. Even the most humble parishioners might revolt if they found out they were deliberately blessed with a less than divine foreskin. If word of that ever got around, there'd be more than petitions nailed to the church door.
And even if the experiment worked, it might still bring about the wrath of the Lord. After all, thou shalt not put thy God to the test. Not even His foreskin.
So perhaps it was left as an optional matter of faith, left up to the individual to decide, and also left up to the individual to figure out which of the fifteen churches actually housed the Lord's foreskin. Whether or not anyone broke from the Church on the matter, history does not say, though schisms have been started for less.
Given the yen for relics during the Middle Ages, the foreskin fascination shouldn't be so surprising. Churches were built with little bits of saint's bodies set beneath the altars. Some saint's bodies were said not to decay; they were incorruptible. A saint who did not rot was considered a shoo-in for canonization. Certainly, the Lord's body wouldn't rot, either. Since Christ ascended into heaven, He didn't leave a body behind. But he did leave His foreskin.
That's assuming it wasn't ascended into heaven when He went up there. Many Christians believe people in heaven are reunited with their lost body parts But that raises the question of whether Christ was Christian or Jewish; a Jew, even if he did believe in an afterlife, wouldn't exactly see a need to get his prepuce back after died. True, Christ didn't worship Himself (that would be an insufferable character trait even for the Son of God) and so could hardly be called a Christian, but on the other hand, dying on the cross seems like a whole lot to go through to help out the goyim. But the question may well be moot here. After all, Christ is often depicted with holes still in His palms. If He hasn't gotten those fixed yet, He probably hasn't gotten His foreskin back, either. Maybe it's a hygiene thing. He's got enough problems keeping His wounds from getting infected, since every politician and salesman who goes to heaven expects to shake His hand. The last thing He needs is an uncircumcised penis to keep clean. So He probably didn't take His foreskin back.
Foreskins are thrown away by the rabbi after circumcision. Even the most adoring Jewish mother wouldn't keep her son's prepuce, even if she did think he was the Son of God, and many have thought so. But since it was divine and thus incorruptible, and would have lasted while others would rot, did some farmer, tilling through the trash for compost, find the intact foreskin and keep it?
Or was it squirreled away by someone who recognized the Christ child's divinity (some equivalent of Joseph of Aramithea, for our purposes here Joseph of Arabrissea) and kept hidden for ten centuries in some secret nook or cranny till some English king, eager to distract his knights from the usual sport of killing each other and complaining about who gets to sit where on the table, sends his best and bravest on the epic equivalent of an Easter egg hunt and makes the rest sit at the card table with the uncles?
Perhaps some young paladin, exhausted from his ordeals but still grateful not to have to sit with Uncle Lester, sees a vision of the Lambskin of God, still in the hands of the Saracens, who, like their descendants today, feel compelled to ransom everything. Single-handedly, he wrests the foreskin from the heathen grip, and crosses deserts and seas to bring the Most Holy Skin to its rightful place -- England -- and there he finds . . . fourteen other knights bearing foreskins.
The quest is just sort of forgotten about, and everybody goes back to killing each other. The lesser knights continue to eat with Uncle Lester.
Somehow, fifteen different churches got ahold of them. Perhaps they were donated by the knights, or passed down the knight's family for generations ("You can't give away the foreskin! It's been in the family for over a hundred years!") till donated to the local parish. In the spirit of anonymous giving, they could have been dropped into the poor box. Those not so humble might've placed it in the collection basket.
Or perhaps the motives involved were not of charity. Perhaps pastors, out on their evening walks, were encountered in dark alleys by mysterious strangers who hissed, "Pssst, Padre. Interested in the foreskin of Christ?" Some priests, wizened by bad experiences in Amsterdam, might turn their nose up on the offer, but the more trusting of them might believe, and squander the parish's heating budget on yet another foreskin.
Foreskin forging may have been an arcane but thriving business, branching out into indulgence kiting, penance fraud, the passing off of kindling as pieces of the true cross, and the development of Lourdes, the Vegas of miracle towns. They may have ransacked rabbi's trash cans looking for suitable material, or perhaps they used some sort of ersatz foreskin, in much the same way that camel's hair brushes are not made from camel hair but from squirrel hair. In today's day and age, these people would be calling their product "4-Skin" and, if pressed for details, describe it as "a processed cheese food product." Their spokesman would not, of course, be Jesus, but someone who plays Him on TV. Maybe Vincent from Beauty and the Beast.
And though today we have ersatz cheese that needs no refrigeration and resists spoilage for millennia, and a cult following behind a show about a Christlike fellow made up like Burt Lahr who lives in the sewer, the foreskin of Christ seems lacking in our everyday spiritual life.
Was the whole idea rejected somewhere between the Reformation and Vatican II? Did some cardinal, trying to get the kids back in the Church, reject the whole foreskin tradition as square and old-fashioned, and have all fifteen of them thrown out? Are they festering somewhere in the Vatican dump, under a pile of St. Christopher medals and the Shroud of Turin?
Are there still some unreconstructed traditionalists who yearn for the days when the priest kept his back to the congregation, everything was said in a dead language, and you could get forty days indulgence for visiting the penile flesh of the Lord, at any one of fifteen locations? Did the foreskins get tossed out, one by one, during spring cleanings and rummage sales by church ladies ever tidying and mindful that priests are just men, made of flesh and blood, and often possess strange hobbies, just like anybody else?
Do they rest, forgotten, in church basements, to be collected, one by one, in some horrible apocalyptic movie storyline, some Legend of Zelda for the Revelations crowd, maybe the next Indiana Jones movie if they can ever get Harrison Ford's salary back down to Vatican Bank proportions? Perhaps another Nazis-after-the-Grail plot device? After all, Hitler really did try to get his hands on the spear believed to have pierced Christ's side. Imagine what he could've done with the Lord's foreskin andthe spear -- perhaps crushed the Allies with some Jehovah-sized novelty item and embarrassed Joe Stalin as whole divisions of T-34s were wiped away with a wave of heilige Schwanzfleisch. Only Indy, and some cute kid sidekick, and Sean Connery, and some love interest we'll never see in any sequel, could save the world from a fate worse than historical revisionism.
© 1993 Randel Shard
This article appeared earlier in The Stranger and Foreskin Quarterly.