Most everyone has heard of the Holy Grail from Arthurian legend, at least in broad strokes. According to the stories, the Grail was the cup Jesus drank from during the Last Supper. It then passed into the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, who used it to collect Jesus’ blood at the Crucifixion. Afterward Joseph brought the Grail to Roman Britain for some reason, where centuries later it became the object of a quest among King Arthur’s knights.

And small wonder that the knights were after it. The Grail was said to possess miraculous powers. It could heal its holder, revive the land, provide unlimited sustenance, and even grant direct access into the presence of God.

The enduring appeal of medieval legends

Needless to say, there’s no scriptural or historical warrant for any of this. It’s a medieval myth that has enjoyed periodic revivals in the world of arts and entertainment. And it’s not the only myth associated with Christ’s blood to have resurfaced in popular culture.

The Holy Lance, also known as the Spear of Longinus or the Spear of Destiny, is said to be the weapon that pierced Jesus’ side as he hung on the Cross. Mired in hoaxes and conspiracy theories down through the centuries, the Spear has been rumoured to give its wielder power and victory in battle, as well as the ability to bend destiny itself. Much like the Grail, it has shown up in everything from Wagnerian opera to Japanese anime to TV shows about time travel and alternative history.

Aside from the question of how these legends originated, it’s more pertinent to ask why they continue to fascinate modern audiences.

The quick answer might be that they make for colourful stories. Everybody loves a good story. But people also love stories that explore the mythical and the miraculous. In a materialist culture, such stories offer reassurance that there’s something beyond, something greater, perhaps even an ultimate purpose to things.

Lack of scriptural acuity, past and present

In the days of old that gave birth to these legends, the zeitgeist was completely different from the here and now. Cultural Christianity was on the rise while biblical literacy was on the wane. The core New Testament truth of Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sinners – in a word, the Gospel – was becoming obscured under folk tales and superstitions. In such an atmosphere, it was possible to think of Christ’s blood as a mystical substance in a cup or on a spear that would grant eternal youth or the power to change history.

The offence of the Cross to the modern mind

Back in the present, one thing remains sadly consistent: a lack of scriptural acuity, not just in the surrounding culture but often in the church as well. The culture might be entertained by stories of enchanted spears and magical goblets. But for modern humanists steeped in individualism, the concept of God becoming man in order to shed his blood for sinners is incomprehensible. Indeed, the idea of propitiation – of Christ’s death satisfying the righteous wrath of God against sin – can be downright offensive to the modern mind.

As always, cultural attitudes bring their own pressure to bear on the church. These days, there’s no shortage of professing believers who are frankly embarrassed by Christ’s bloody sacrifice in front of a skeptical world. They’re happy to speak of Jesus as a teacher or as an example, but are reluctant to proclaim his atoning death on behalf of sinful humanity.

The true value and power of the blood of Christ

Nevertheless, the authors of the New Testament are unequivocal. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman church: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25).

The Apostle John agreed and reassured his readers: “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

And the writer to the Hebrews couldn’t have been clearer: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).

God did not intend the blood of his Son to be taken for a magical talisman that would bring health or wealth or political power. Its infinite value lies not in its physical substance, but in the one who shed it, and in the reason he did so – to save his people from their sins. And there’s no greater miracle than that.

Sources and further reading

Richard Cavendish, “The discovery of the Holy Lance,” History Today, Volume 48 Issue 6, June 1998.

Michael Ray, “Holy Lance,” Encyclopedia Britannica, updated February 22, 2019.

Mariel Synan, “What is the Holy Grail?” History.com, June 26, 2013.

Keith Veronese, “What is the Spear of Destiny, and where can you get it?” io9.gizmodo.com, March 2, 2012.

King Arthur in legend: the Holy Grail,” Britannia.com, accessed April 25, 2017.

The quest for the Holy Grail,” British Library, accessed April 25, 2017.

© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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