BETHLEHEM/ JERUSALEM – On Friday, November 29, 2019, a fragment of what, according to tradition, is the Holy Crib of the Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem. Preserved for centuries at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, this relic will remain permanently in Bethlehem, a gift from Pope Francis to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.
At the St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, there is a depiction of the “Nativity” carved by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century on the basis of a tradition dating from 432AD, when, in the then original Basilica, Pope Sixtus III had a “cave of the Nativity” constructed on the model of the Bethlehem original. This earned the Roman Basilica the title of “Santa Maria ad Praesepem”. Not more than two centuries later, the then Patriarch of Jerusalem, St. Sophronius, gave to Pope Theodore I (who would have been of Palestinian origin, according to some sources) what tradition indicated as the Holy Crib of the Infant Jesus. In Rome, it was placed in the Liberian Basilica (after Pope Liberius) of the St. Mary Major Basilica, given the intimate connection that, for a long time now, united this Church to the birthplace of Our Lord. The presence of this venerated relic earned the basilica the title “Bethlehem of Rome”.
Even today, St. Mary Major preserves what remains of the Crib, protected in the golden casket of Reliquary Crypt. In the nearness of the beginning of Advent, the casket has been opened at the behest of Pope Francis who ordered the extraction of a fragment to donate it to the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. This occurred last November 22 in Rome, when, during a rite presided over by the Archpriest of St. Mary Major, His Eminence Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko, some appointees of the vatican Museum opened the urn, taking from it a fragment, and placed it in the special reliquary.
The gift of Pope Francis took place following the request of the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to be able to provisionally receive in Bethlehem the entire Crib of the Child Jesus preserved in the Esquiline Basilica on the occasion of the Christmas holidays. However, having ascertained the impossibility of moving the relic due to its extreme fragility, the Holy Father decided to remove a part of it and give it to the Custody of the Holy Land as a final gift.
The relic arrived in the Holy Land on Friday, November 29, a day on which it reached the first of two stages: Jerusalem. In the morning, the relic was exposed to the public in the chapel of “Our Lady of Peace”, located in the Notre Dame Center of Jerusalem. The exhibition was accompanied by a Mass celebrated by H.E. Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, Apostolic Nuncio in Israel and Cyprus and Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, and by the concelebrants Father Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, and Father Juan Solana, L.C., director of Notre Dame.
In his homily, Archbishop Girelli did not fail to dwell on how significant this gift is, urging the faithful not to remain indifferent to it so that “it can arouse in us the desire to be bearers of God” so that our very heart becomes “sacred crib of God made man”.
In the afternoon, however, the Nuncio gave the relic to the Custos of the Holy Land. On this occasion, Archbishop Girelli read the message that Cardinal Ryłko addressed to the Custos of the Holy Land, recalling how Pope Francis accompanied this gift with his blessing. In response, Father Francesco Patton expressed gratitude to the Holy Father, adding, on behalf of the Custody, that he wanted to make this relic “bring the joy of the Gospel, moving among the various Christian communities of the Holy Land”.
At the end of the delivery ceremony, the relic was carried in a solemn procession to the nearby church of St. Saviour, located in the complex of the Custody of the Holy Land, while the friars recited vespers. The ceremony coincided with the feast of All Saints of the Seraphic Order.
The following morning, a festive crowd of faithful and curious, huddled all along Star Street and around the Nativity Square, testified to the arrival of the relic of the Sacred Cradle. Starting from the rotunda near the headquarters of Catholic Action, the Custos, accompanied by Mr. Ramzi Khoury, President of the Higher Presidential Committee for Ecclesiastical Affairs, by Father Ibrahim Faltas, responsible for Status Quo in the Basilica of the Nativity and by Father Rami Asakrieh, parish priest of St. Catherine Parish, led the relic in procession through the entire Star Street, up to the Basilica of the Nativity. The procession was enriched by the music of the numerous scout bands of Bethlehem.
Once at the Nativity, the relic was finally taken to the adjacent Church of St. Catherine in which the letter sent to the Custos by Cardinal Ryłko of Rome, thus retracing, at least symbolically, the bridge that unites the Nativity of Bethlehem with that of Rome, the Basilica of the Nativity of Jesus with the one dedicated to His Mother Mary.