Virgin Apparitions, Holy Blood, and Me
During a panel discussion for The Virgin, the Copts and Me, held as part of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, Namir Abdel Messeh, a French filmmaker of Egyptian origin, admitted he had embarked on a seemingly impossible quest. How can one make a movie that proves if an apparition exists or not?
After he watches a videotape of the Virgin Mary’s apparition in Egypt with his domineering mother Siham, they argue about the reality of what’s unfolding on film. His mother joins millions of other Copts who see the Virgin, while he sees nothing. Skeptical about the authenticity of this videotape, Messeh travels back to Egypt to make a film about the bizarre occurrence of these apparitions.
It is a tale that involves bungled attempts to find a financier, a series of mother-and-son comedic vignettes, a fish-out-of-water story, a journey to reconnect with the impoverished relatives his mother fought to keep under wraps, and the dramatic staging of a faux apparition of the Virgin. While trying to follow this multilayered documentary, I concur with Abhimanyu Das over at the Revealer that this narrative slipperiness makes this film about the making of a film about the making of a film exasperating at times. Are we seeing a movie about the Copts, the Virgin, or the director (hence the film’s title)?
Despite this disjointed theatricality, in those rare quiet moments when Messeh converses with his toothless elderly grandmother, his aunt, and a few cousins, we see this self-proclaimed agnostic shift from debunking religion to reconnecting with the spirit of this place. In this setting, we get a few glimpses of his family and other villagers’ childlike joy in participating in the magic of movie-making, followed by their worshipful reaction to seeing themselves on film. Even though I left the theater still knowing little of the history of this particular apparition, I could feel even the fake apparition’s power to offer transformational hope.
Flashback to the previous week when during a press trip to Flanders, I came face to face with the Basilica of the Holy Blood. At first glimpse, I broke out in giggles. A site that claimed to hold a sample of the Messiah’s blood sounded about as ludicrous as David Farley’s quest in An Irreverent Curiosity to get a peek of Jesus’ foreskin, allegedly hid in the Italian hamlet of Calcata.
But while the foreskin remains hidden out of view, there’s a bona fide history behind this bloody bit, according to the tourist brochures. In 1149 Thierry d’Alsace, Count of Flanders, brought a gold-and-glass vial filled with a blood-like substance to Bruges. Supposedly the Count received this relic from the Patriarch of Jerusalem in recognition of his contribution to the First Crusade in the Holy Land. The following year, Bruges launched the Holy Blood Procession, a two-part series that enacts biblical scenes leading up to the resurrection, and then the return of the Count of Flanders to Bruges. Except for a short break during the two World Wars, this annual procession has continued to this day.
Unfortunately our travel schedule did not permit me to attend a viewing of this relic; I bought a postcard of the vial at the Basilica, and admired the photographs of Bruges citizens decked in medieval garb for the procession, I doubt any of those smiling faces believe in the literalism of this object. So far, no one seems to request that the relic be dissected in the hopes of conducting a DNA analysis. (Trying to obtain a genetic sample from the Father, Son and Holy Ghost sounds like an impossible task from a medical and theological standpoint.) But every year, 1,500 Bruges citizens gather to remember a relic that connects them to the history of their homeland.
Within these communal responses we find the power of relics. In Religion Dispatches, Peter Manseau, KtB co-founder and author of Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead, lays out the history of the Shroud of Turin, which clearly indicates that this item cannot be “real.” But he reminds us that “so much focus on explanation misses the point. Belief—any belief, whether in God, the Resurrection, even the Force—requires a partial abandonment of the rational.”
Does it really matter that even a falsified Virgin or the Lord’s non-DNA-certified blood can be venerated? Manseau might say “no.” “Even if an object is not genuinely what believers profess it to be — such as Chaucer’s feather of the angel Gabriel — it becomes the locus of belief for centuries. … A relic concentrates the beliefs surrounding it until they can be seen: it is faith so intense it has, at times, set the world on fire.”
But how can I set the world ablaze when my inner skeptic proclaims that those who follow say a Messianic foreskin are more fanatical than faithful?
Becky Garrison is a satirist/storyteller whose most recent book is Roger Williams’s Little Book of Virtues (Wipf & Stock, March 2020). Also, she edited Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resilience (Transgress Press, 2015). Her six books include 2006’s Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church (PW, starred review).