September 19: Saint Januarius, Bishop and Martyr

c. 300
Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of Naples


<<<      An early bishop martyr is honored due to an enduring miracle of blood.     >>>

In every lost corner and hidden valley of the Catholic world is a painting of the Virgin Mary that cries watery tears, a crucifix whose growing hair must be cut with scissors, a white host oozing drops of red blood, or a sacred pool whose baths make the blind see and the lame walk. Of all the miracles, wonders, and theological rarities that leave God’s family in awe, the miracle of today’s saint is one of the most astounding. Three times a year—on his day of martyrdom, September 19; on the day of his commemoration as Patron of Naples, December 16; and on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, recalling the gathering together of his various relics—the blood of Saint Januarius liquefies.

Since at least the 1300s, a small glass vial holding a deep-red, stable substance has been removed from a safe location and brought before the faithful in the Cathedral of Naples by a priest or bishop. The vial is placed near the other relics of Saint Januarius which rest under the altar. And then the drumbeat of prayers start. They sometimes continue for hours and sometimes for minutes. God is bidden, fuel is poured on the fire of faith, and the mysterious moment arrives. Spontaneously, the stable, solid, red substance is transformed into a liquid that splashes around the inside walls of the vial for all to see. The blood of Saint Januarius has come to life. The city of Naples fires a twenty-one-gun salute from a nearby castle to signal that the transformation has occurred.

There is no explanation for how this happens. But it happens, happens often, and has happened consistently for many centuries. The proof is the outcome itself. That a solid substance liquifies cannot be debated. The liquified blood must be the starting point for speculation, not a presumption of magic or sleight of hand. That some things of God cannot be explained without the informed trust of faith is simply to state that believers did not make God up. He is not understandable. If He were, then He would fit conveniently into our tiny brains and thus not be God. But no faith is needed to accept this miracle. What happens is a fact.

Little is known about the life of Saint Januarius. An extant letter from 432 mentions him as if he were already well known. It states that a nearby bishop, a friend of Saint Augustine named Saint Paulinus of Nola, had a vision of Januarius just before Paulinus died, and that Januarius was a bishop and martyr and a well-known member of the Church of Naples. It is believed that our saint was beheaded during a persecution under the reign of Diocletian, in the decade before Christianity was legalized in the early 300s.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the liquifying of Saint Januarius’ blood is that it occurs for no specific purpose. No sick person is healed, no sacrament is celebrated, no bishop is elected. It is a divine folly. It occurs to edify, to entertain, and to inspire, as if religion were a theological sport, with God simply putting His talents on display for all to behold the spectacle from the pews, to gaze, mouth agape, at a wonder that can neither be explained nor be resisted.

Saint Januarius, you died for the faith of the Church just as the Christian era dawned. May we follow your example of generous witness and stand astonished at the mysterious miracle that puts your name on so many lips so many centuries after you perished for Christ. Amen.

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