Manger relic returned to Bethlehem for Christmas

Pope Francis has returned a fragment of wood believed to have formed part of Jesus’s manger to Bethlehem after about 1,400 years in Europe.

The relic has most recently been at Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

It is said “a very large number of pilgrims from all over the world” went to the Basilica each day to “venerate it”.

The relic was put on display in Jerusalem for a short time before continuing its journey to Bethlehem.

Encased in an ornate stand, the relic was welcomed to Bethlehem by a procession of marching bands.

It is now at its permanent home at the Franciscan Church of St Catherine, on the West Bank.

St Catherine’s is next door to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This is the place tradition says Jesus was born.

The relic’s arrival coincides with the beginning of Advent.

Advent – the four-week period leading up to Christmas – started on Sunday.

St Sophronius, who was the patriarch of Jerusalem, sent the relic to Pope Theodore I in the 640s.

That was about the time of the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land.

Dr Yisca Harani, an Israeli expert on Christianity, says many relics were relocated from the Holy Land in the Middle Ages.

“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,” she says.

A relic from the manger would have been useful for dispelling heresies suggesting Jesus was a spiritual rather than a physical being, she says

The pope’s return of such an important item “is definitely a statement saying the Vatican and the Holy Land are together”.

Bethlehem’s mayor, Anton Salman, says the relic’s return followed a request from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a recent visit to the Vatican.

The relic is not the first religious artifact Pope Francis has returned.

Earlier this year, he gave bone fragments said to be of Saint Peter to the leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

He said the fragment’s return was intended to bring the Orthodox and Catholic churches together.


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