Several news outlets have reported what some see as exciting news with headlines like “Relic believed to be of Jesus’ manger returned to Bethlehem” (UPI) and “After Two Thousand Years, Jesus’ Manger Returns to Bethlehem in Time for Christmas” (Haaretz).
The headlines overstate the case. The UPI description of the relic as “believed to be of Jesus’ manger,” for example, may describe some devout Catholics who believe the actual remains of the manger where Luke says Jesus was laid are in the possession of the Vatican. Such belief is far from universal, however — mainly because there is nothing more than an old church tradition to support it.
The Haaretz story implies that the entire manger was delivered to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, when in fact what was returned is a chip from one of five small boards held in an ornate crystal, gold, and silver reliquary in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. A reliquary, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a container (usually quite fancy) that contains a relic such as Mary’s belt in Tuscany’s Prato Cathedral, or the arm bone of St. Vitus in the treasury of the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, the Czech Republic.
The Haaretz story further botches things by publishing three photos supposedly picturing the reliquary in Rome, when in fact they are different angles of the grotto inside Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
Pardon my skepticism on all counts.
Traditions related to that particular spot in the Church of the Nativity as the birthplace of Jesus go back to the second century CE, with the memory of it reportedly preserved by locals. In 135 CE, Emperor Hadrian had a shrine to the Greek god Adonis built at the site. Whether he was trying to erase a memory of Jesus or whether Christians later took it over as a holy site is in dispute. In 326-328, Queen Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine, visited Jerusalem and Bethlehem. She was sufficiently impressed that she ordered the erection of the first basilica over the site, in 330. A natural cave in Shepherd’s Field preserves a different tradition of Jesus’ birthplace.
Helena was quite the explorer. During the same journey, she reportedly also discovered three crosses and identified one as the “True Cross” of Christ, along with the nails with which he was crucified. Believing them miraculous, she put one in Constantine’s hat and another in his horse’s bridle to ward off harm. Helena returned with large pieces of the “True Cross,” fragments of which can be found in various churches across Europe. Duplication or forgery of relics was common: when a fragment held by the Waterford Cathedral in Ireland was tested at Oxford University, it proved to be from the 11th century.
Catholic tradition holds that the reputed “Holy Manger” (or Sacra Culla) was kept in the custody of various Christians in Palestine before being brought to Rome as a gift to the pope in the 7th century, also preserving it from potential destruction by Muslim invaders. Today the small sycamore boards rest in a crypt beneath the altar of the Santa Maria Maggiore church in Rome — except for that one small chip that was placed in an elaborate silver setting and bequeathed to Saint Catherine’s Church in Bethlehem, a Roman Catholic church attached to the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity, part of which is maintained by the Armenian Apostolic Church. There thousands of pilgrims will shed tears while venerating a chip that they believe from the very manger of Jesus.
I try to put myself in others’ shoes and appreciate why items such as relics and icons are so important to those who were raised in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and who practice devoutly. Lacking a single mystical bone in my body, however, the best I can do is conclude that I’m glad it is meaningful to them.
The chips from Jesus’ crib or cross that I look for are found in the actions of those who have chosen to follow Jesus and let his teachings be born anew in their hearts, sharing the gentle but powerful message of love to a world that desperately needs it.