In the Old Testament, manna is described as ‘like coriander seeds with the appearance of bdellium’ (Numbers 11:7). The word manna has been adopted to describe an oil which appears on, and often flows from, the relics of many saints. The perfumed oil that has been observed originating from these relics generally takes the form of a colourless, tasteless fluid that has occurred in different countries with various atmospheric conditions and under circumstances that are considered unfavourable and unusual.
The first reported case of this mysterious fluid seems to have involved the relics of St. Andrew the Apostle. An anniversary of his death was marked in a special way in the church where his remains were entombed in Patras, Greece. A Greek text regarding this event was obtained and translated by St. Gregory, bishop of Tours, before he died in 594. The document related that a miracle was accomplished by the apostle in the form of manna that presented itself in the form of a perfumed oil that flowed from the sepulcher. It was related further that for years the oil was so abundant that at times it dripped from the tomb and flowed half-way down the aisle of the church.
The relics were moved from the city of his martyrdom and were deposited in the Basilica of the Apostles in Constantinople. The phenomenon continued, prompting Cardinal Baronio to comment at the time that the entire Christian world knew about the substances that collected on the apostle’s tomb. The manna was gathered as a relic and as such was distributed with the consequence of many miracles of healing, all recorded.
On the occasion of the fourth Crusade in 1204, Cardinal Peter of Capua collected the bones of the apostle in a silver urn and brought them to safety in Italy where he placed them in the Cathedral of Amalfi.
A century later, the phenomenon was again noticed. An elderly gentleman worshipping in the church was somehow alerted to the miracle and notified the priest who looked inside the tomb to discover the presence of the perfumed oil. The townspeople were informed of the miracle and converged on the site. The oil was applied to areas of pain with one man’s sight being restored after several years of blindness. Even though the phenomenon continued with many miracles performed, it seems from records kept by the basilica that the tomb eventually was ‘lost to oblivion’ until the 2nd January 1603 when a stonemason while working in the church discovered a slab of marble with the inscription Corpus S. Andreas ap. Beneath the slab was an urn overflowing with perfumed oil. He duly notified the priests who in turn notified the bishop. A document was drawn before a notary and was signed by the bishop, mayor and many witnesses. This document was placed within the urn which was once again buried and apparently forgotten.
The relics were again delivered from obscurity on the 28th January 1846 when restorations were being conducted in the church. They were officially recognized and moved to the main altar where they are still situated today. From then on the manna has been collected punctually on the 28th January, the 26th June and the 30th November (the anniversary of his martyrdom) when the substance never fails to appear. Some years there is a great quantity, other years less.
This mysterious secretion has also been noticed exuding from the bones of many other saints: St. Nicholas, St. Walburga, St. Gerard Majella, St. Sharbel Makhlouf, etc.
These appearances of perfumed oil from sanctified bones and bodies (never has this been observed in any other corpse) while wholly unexplainable by physicians and scientists today, are likewise mystifying to the Church, but it would seem that the Lord wishes to draw attention to these, His faithful sons and daughters, and to anoint their remains with an oil of special origin. As early as the eighth century, St. John Damascene recognized this phenomenon. His observation would seem as appropriate today as it was then: ‘Christ gives us the relics of saints as health-giving springs through which flow blessings and healing. This should not be doubted. For if at God’s word water gushed from hard rock in the wilderness … yes, and from the ass’ jawbone when Samson was thirsty, why should it seem incredible that healing medicine should distill from the relics of the saints?’