Kissing the rock in Bethlehem | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Kissing the rock in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Grotto of the Nativity, 27th December 2011

On 27th December, the feast-day of St. John the Evangelist, the community of the Friars Minor of St. Catherine’s Convent at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, goes in procession to the Grotto for a devotion specific to this day: kissing the rock on the crib that held the Child Jesus. For this act of veneration to take place, the sacristans have to dismantle everything that had been solemnly prepared for Christmas in the Manger: the protective grilles are taken away and the lights, the rich fabrics and the painting at the back showing the Nativity are removed. The sacristans take advantage of this occasion to give the place a thorough clean; despite the protections, the pilgrims in their piety succeeded in slipping in notes with prayers of intercession and photos. The statue of the Child Jesus is also removed, because everything must be absolutely unadorned so that the rock, the witness of the salvific event of the incarnation, stands out and is ready to be venerated by the kiss of the friars. This act of devotion is performed in silence, without a liturgy of its own. Although it is very ancient and is contemplated by the protocols of the Status Quo, research on its origin and history is still ongoing. According to the master of ceremonies of the Custody of the Holy Land, Father Marcelo Ariel Cichinelli, this devotion is believed to be the remnant of a much more extensive ritual, from the times when the friars of the Custody had complete and free access to the grotto and the basilica. The gesture recalls the Franciscans when they kiss the Column of the Flagellation during their peregrination on Holy Wednesday to the Holy Sepulchre, which could well have been its inspiration. Why 27th December? According to Father Marcelo – but he refers us to further studies – the reason is to be sought in the fact that the liturgy of the Franciscans and of the Custody of the Holy Land depends on the Roman Liturgy: the Tridentine Mass fixes a papal station for this day at Santa Maria Maggiore, where the relic of the crib in which the Baby Jesus was laid is kept and which in the Octave of Christmas was the object of special attention. Similarly, the friars may have introduced this act of devotion, which in the context of the Grotto of the Nativity is equally justified and significant, to the Holy Land.

By Brother Riccardo Ceriani, who also took the photos