Under the altar of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the oldest and most important churches in Rome, is an underground chamber whose crowning glory is a golden reliquary, before which pilgrims rarely maintain their composure. Inside lies Jesus’ manger – one of the most important relics of the Catholic world.
Legend says that Christians guarded the Holy Manger, which was sent to Rome for safekeeping in the seventh century, following the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. Since then, it has been the property of the Vatican (even though, geographically speaking, it lies outside the Vatican’s territory).
But now, a little more than 2,000 years after the infant Jesus slept in it (according to Christian tradition), the manger is returning to the Middle East – or to be more precise, a small part of it is. This Friday, a small piece of wood from the manger will be put on display to the faithful in Jerusalem. After that, it will be permanently relocated to Bethlehem.
As was decided by Pope Francis, the fragment will be handed over to the Custodia Terrae Sanctae, the Franciscan order responsible for managing Catholic sites in the Holy Land. This papal decision is both an expression of trust in the organization and an important event for believers.
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Several events will be held to honor the arrival of the fragment, which will be displayed in the Notre Dame complex, near the Old City of Jerusalem’s New Gate. On Friday, church leaders and Custodia officials will welcome it with a festive procession. On Saturday, another procession will escort it to Bethlehem, where it originally came, and where it will remain.
“We’re excited and grateful to the pope, the Holy Father Francis, for this gift and the right to preserve this holy relic,” said the custos of the order, Fr. Francesco Patton. “This is a very significant event for us, when a relic of baby Jesus’ manger, which left Bethlehem in the seventh century, makes its way back to the Holy Land. Its return is a joyous event in advance of Christmas, which marks the birth of Jesus Christ our savior, and does great honor to believers and pilgrims in the region.”
Dr. Yisca Harani, a researcher of Christianity, agreed that this is a historic event. “We’re seeing an inversion of history,” she said. “A thousand years ago, Rome was busy collecting relics from the East to build itself up as an alternative Jerusalem. Now, Rome is strong enough that it can return relics to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.”
The chip of wood from the manger of Jesus is not the first artifact to leave Rome. Over the past few decades, the Catholic Church has returned a few remnants and bones of saints to their source as part of its attempts to improve relations with Christian communities worldwide. But in this case, the entire cradle is not returning to Bethlehem; it holds the greatest importance for pilgrims and visitors to the basilica in Rome.
In terms of the sanctity of the object, there is no difference between a fragment and the whole, says Prof. Galit Noga-Banai of the art history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "The perception of holy relics is that a small part contains all the holiness of the complete source, so there's no problem that this is only a piece of the manger," she said. “It holds importance because now in Bethlehem, it won’t only be the location – the grotto in which Jesus was born – but also an authentic remnant of the manger. This is the closing of a circle that will contribute to the holiness of the place.”