“Their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my Father”: the feast day of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

“Their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my Father”: the feast day of the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Basilica of the Nativity – St. Joseph’s Grotto, 28th December 2011

As the city of Bethlehem gradually returns to its quiet normality after the intense and exciting days of Christmas, the Franciscan community celebrates, on 28th December, another significant feast-day linked to this Christmas period, the Feast-day of the Holy Innocents, the liturgy of which takes place at St. Joseph’s Grotto, owned by the Franciscans and the continuation of the Grotto of the Nativity in the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Along the right-hand nave of St. Catherine’s Church, a short flight of steps leads to a system of ancient grottos and the first of these, in the centre, that you meet on your way down is called St. Joseph’s Grotto. It is next to the Grotto of the Nativity and divided from it only by a rear wall. It is dedicated to St. Joseph in memory of the vision that Mary’s husband had in a dream, of the angel that urged him to take Jesus and His Mother with him and flee to Egypt, because King Herod was seeking the Child to kill him (Matthew 2,13). At the back of the grotto, in an elevated position, there is a small altar, with access from two flights of steps on either side. On the left, under the foundations of a Constantinian wall, a pre-Constantinian arch holds some funerary niches from the 1st-2nd centuries AD. Alongside, still on the left, there is the Grotto of the Holy Innocents, dedicated to the martyred children of Bethlehem, who died in the massacre ordered by Herod after having learned that Jesus had been born there.

Brother Artemio Vitores, Custodial Vicar, presided the solemn Holy Mass in this Holy Place, in an intimate and meditative atmosphere, on the morning of 28th December, surrounded by numerous concelebrant priests who took up positions at the sides of the small altar, decorated with beautiful white flowers for this special occasion. There were many female religious from the Holy Land at the celebration: Franciscan sisters, Brigidine sisters, Salesian sisters, sisters of the Rosary, sisters of St. Joseph, sisters of the family of Mother Teresa of Calcutta and many others, completely filling the small grotto. There were also some pilgrims present, at the sides and at the back, attracted by this special occasion which few people attend, and some local Arabic-speaking Christians.

In his homily, after having underlined the long tradition of the Feast-day of the Holy Innocents, which has appeared in ancient calendars from as early as the 4th century, Brother Vitores first of all reflected briefly on Christmas, on the Son of God who comes into the world as a poor child, lacking everything yet infinitely rich with all celestial Grace. It is in the mystery of His birth that there is the birth of Life and the fullness of Life, therefore, like St. Francis, every Christmas, we have to “become a child with the Child” (2 Cel 35) and discover in the humble and in the poor the wealth of divine Life, which is fragile and hidden in our midst. The first witnesses of this God who became a Child in Bethlehem, the first victims, the first martyrs in solidarity with Christ are the Holy Innocents, who receive with their dramatic testimony the baptism of blood, the palm and the crown that associate them with the procession of the Messianic king. However, if the glory of these small Saints infuses feelings of tenderness and kindness into souls, their tragic story and the atrocious violence they suffered become a warning against every attempt, even at the present time, to hit, violate and destroy innocent children. Jesus himself urged us severely not to transgress this order: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father” (Matthew 18,10). For this reason, as Pope Benedict XVI also emphasized, the Feast-day of the Holy Innocents must make us remember and pray for all those children who are still victims today of every form of violence, of the absence of a family, of material and cultural poverty, of the use of small children in armed conflicts, illegal trafficking and criminal actions, and even that radical violence which prevents children from carrying out the plan that God has conceived for them, because this is taken away from them before their birth through the practice of abortion. Lastly, Brother Vitores especially wanted to remember the many Christian martyrs, including very recent ones, in Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq and many other parts of the world.

After a simple lunch shared with the local Franciscan community, Brother Vitores, together with the Franciscans of Jerusalem and the students who had accompanied him on this peregrination to Bethlehem, returned to St. Joseph’s Grotto to preside the solemn Vespers and commemorate once again those small martyrs of the time of Jesus. Alongside the Custodial Vicar, at Vespers, there was Brother Stéphane Milovitch, the present Guardian of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

By Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Marco Gavasso