Christmas in Rome: the Chapel of the Sacra Culla (Sacred Crib of Bethlehem)

Christmas Day takes on special meaning at the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome (in Latin, Sacro Sancta Basilica Sanctae Mariae Maioris). There in the crypt chapel under the high altar is kept this charming reliquary that allegedly holds certain wood fragments of the manger crib of Bethlehem (in Latin, ex cunis Iesu Infantis...from the crib of the Infant Jesus).  For this reason St. Mary Major has also been know as St. Mary of the Crib (in Latin, Sancta Maria ad Praesepe)

The wood, consisting of five boards, has been tested and is believed to be sycamore, ancient in age, brought to this location in Rome in the seventh century during the reign of Pope Theodore (640-649).  The relic was considered so hallowed that the popes began to celebrate Midnight Mass at its special altar at St. Mary Major in the years that followed, making it an annual station Mass on Christmas Night. Meanwhile, the station Mass on Christmas Day was the main altar of St. Mary Major.  

For centuries Christians have made their way to pray in this very place on all days of the year and especially on Christmas for the Mass at Midnight on Christmas Eve (in Latin, Ad Primam Missam in Nocte Statio ad S. Mariam Majorem ad Praesepe). Notice it specifically mentions the praesepe; in the Latin version of St. Luke’s Gospel it says that after Christ was born, Mary laid the baby Jesus ‘in praesepio' in a manger.

In addition, on the 25th of each month a special Mass is celebrated atop the altar in front of the reliquary at 5:30 pm, as advertised in the poster below. Visitors are instructed to arrive early and tell the security officials they are there for the Mass, if they wish to attend. Through a special indult, the Mass celebrated atop this altar throughout the year is the Christmas Mass at Midnight.  

Meanwhile, clergy from all over the world request to celebrate Mass in the chapel at certain times, and with only a few invited guests as the chapel seats a small number. Photos of a recent Mass are seen below, once a common sight every morning, now it is unfortunately a rare sight.  The chapel is small, with a beautiful marbled altar under a barrel vault, with several wooden benches for the lay faithful. In former generations the relic was covered most of the year by closing doors that were opened only on special days and times of the year, such as Christmas. These days the reliquary is actually carried out for people to get a closer look, from Christmas Day to Epiphany. 


The chapel is reached by two sets of stairs on either side where pilgrims walk up and down by the thousands every day. The knelling statue of Pius IX in Carrara marble was placed in the chapel sometime in the 1860s, in commemoration of Pius IX's devotion to the relic as well as in memory of important improvements and works he initiated to beautify the interior of the Basilica.  

For many of us this is a favorite place to pray, where generations of Christians have gone before us as praying pilgrims, marked with the sign of faith. Here pilgrims mediate on Luke 2:7, taken from the Gospel reading for Midnight Mass (Luke 2:1-14): 

"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn."

The chapel was built under the ground, in commemoration of the grotto or cave in Bethlehem where Christ was born on Christmas Day. The pilgrims who visit Bethlehem in the Holy Land also descent a staircase to see a dark crypt illumined with candles with an altar that marks the spot where Christ became incarnate of a virgin in the City of David. In many ways, Rome continues to be the Jerusalem of the West. It is a wonderful tradition that such a link exists between the Eternal City and the holy city of Bethlehem.   

In 2019 Pope Francis gave a small piece of the crib back to the Christians of the Holy Land (seen below). It was encased in a custom made Baroque reliquary made of pewter, a gift of Pope Francis, and emblazoned with his coat-of-arms in gold at the bottom. The relic is identified with the Latin words EX CVNIS IESV INFANTIS ("From the crib of the Baby Jesus"). It is today kept by the Franciscans at the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem and is brought out on special occasions, such as the First Sunday of Advent. 


Finally, why was Christ placed as a newborn in a manger and not just held in His mother's arms? Manger is a "feeding trough." Bethlehem means "house of bread." Christ calls Himself the "bread of life." And He said, "Unless you eat my body and drink my blook, you have no life within you." Christ was born to die. This points to the self-gift of Christ and that our lives are most fully lived when we received the Holy Eucharist. Indeed, blessed are we who partake in the supper of the lamb.  




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