The Nativity of Jesus is one of the most popular stories told in the Gospel. Everyone who has read the Gospel of Luke and has seen a nativity scene during the Christmas season knows that when the inn had no room, Mary laid the Holy Child in a manger. While a great deal of relics from the time of Christ have been lost to history, do any remain of the manger?
“While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” – Luke 2:6-7
The Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Italian for Basilica of Saint Mary Major, is a Papal major basilica and the largest Marian church in Rome. The church is perhaps known best for containing the venerated image of the Salus Populi Romani; however, the church also holds the Crypt of the Nativity. The Crypt of the Nativity is a large crystal reliquary before the high altar that is said to contain the largest known wood fragments of the manger that Baby Jesus was laid into. The fragments are contained within the Reliquary of the Holy Crib, inside the crypt.
The relics of the crib preserved at Basilica of Saint Mary Major were most likely brought to the church from the Holy Land during the pontificate of Pope Theodore I (640-649) to protect it from the pillaging and plundering by invading marauders. When the church was originally constructed by Theodore I, it was called Sancta Maria ad Praesepe, Latin for Saint Mary of the Crib, because of the wood relics that were brought to it.
During a restoration of the church in 1893 under the direction of Father Lais, sub-director of the Vatican Observatory, the reliquary was found to contain five pieces of sycamore, a tree common to the Holy Land. Studies done on the boards show that two pieces were originally longer and formed an X upon which the other three boards, along with a missing one, formed the supports for a manger. These discoveries lent credence to the tradition the relics were truly from the Holy Manger.
Today, the Basilica of Saint Mary Major is most often used by the pope, who presides over the rites for Feast of the Assumption of Mary every August 15th, in which the reliquary is venerated. Hundreds of pilgrims also come each year to see the reliquary and show reverence towards it.