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From Jesus to Emperor Justinian

  
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.). And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Lk 2,1-6)
  
The decree of Caesar Augustus ordering a census of all the provinces subject to the Roman Empire brought Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to their native city. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet Micah 750 years before the event. The Gospels do not mention the birthplace of Jesus after the event itself and we might be tempted to believe that the "memory" of the place was lost! But how can such a place be forgotten? How can the first Christians have ever given up such a memory? To do so would have been against human nature itself! And in fact we know that one of the earliest Popes, St. Evaristus, Pope from 100 to 109, and a martyr under Trajan, was born in Antioch of a Jew named Judah, a native of Bethlehem.
  
We have witness that Emperor Hadrian profaned the town, after the second Jewish revolt, with a precise political stratagem to eradicate all places of worship of the Jewish nation (including with them even the judaeo-christian sites). In Bethlehem he planted a sacred garden dedicated to Adonis on the holy grotto. St. Jerome, in 396 A.D., wrote: "From Hadrian's time until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years, the Gentiles used to worship an image of Jupiter set up in the place of the Resurrection and on the rock of the Cross a marble statue of Venus. For the authors of the persecution supposed that by polluting the Holy Places with idols they would do away with our faith in the Resurrection and the Cross. Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth's most sacred spot... was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz, which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed." But the site of the birth of Jesus remained visible as witnesses Origen: ""even amongst those who are strangers to the faith it is known that inside that grotto he who is adored and glorified by the Christians was born ."
  
Since the Jews were at this time excluded from Bethlehem, it seems that a considerable pagan population still remained in the district to carry on a cult that had been popular among agricultural communities in the east. In the year 325 the Bishop of Jerusalem, St. Macarius, took the opportunity, offered by the general council of the church at Nicaea, of acquainting the Emperor Constantine of the neglected condition of the Holy Places in his diocese. The Emperor ordered the construction, at the public charge, of monumental churches to commemorate the three principal events of Jesus' life. One of these was to be a church enshrining the scene of the Nativity.
  
An established local tradition enabled the architects to begin work at once in 326. The local people knew that at the end of the village among the trees was the cave in which was born Jesus Christ. The trees were felled and the superfluous rock quarried away.
  
The magnificent building had a spacious outer atrium to the West paved with large slabs of stone and an inner mosaiced one. On the eastern portico three doors opened onto the five naves basilica with a mosaiced floor the aisles of which were divided by rows of monolithic columns. This mosaic had elaborate colourful geometric designs. The shape of the cave was adapted to architectural and devotional requirements. Above it a raised enclosed octagonal platform, a "holy area". At the centre of the sacred area a canopy of precious metals raised on an octagonal three-stepped structure. It is still dubious whether at the centre of this canopy there was an opening to peer down at the underneath grotto or an altar. This holy area was very finely mosaiced. An L shaped stairway at the centre of the façade of the raised platform led from the Basilica to the Holy Grotto. At the entrance of this stairway a mosaic inscription in greek bearing the christological acrostic for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour". The Grotto too was transformed and the venerated manger (surely hewn out of the grotto's rock) was replaced by one of precious metal. In fact St. Jerome himself complained that "we, as if this was to honour Christ, have removed the one made of clay and have substituted it with a silver one; but for me the removed one was more precious". . Fourth and fifth century writers describe the richness of its marbles, mosaics, frescoes, and the silver manger. This basilica, constructed under the supervision of the emperor's mother, St. Helen, survived till the first destruction occurred during the Samaritan revolt (529).
  
This was also a time when monastic life around the Holy Land was given a great impetus. Bethlehem and Jerusalem were two centres around which "Latin" monks and nuns lived their ascetic lives. About 360 St. Athanasius wrote the Life of St. Anthony, which was destined to have such a great influence on the world at large. In Rome the monastic life appealed to the aristocracy and Melania, a widow at 22, leaving her daughter behind, set out for Palestine, accompanied by the monk Rufinus of Aquila. After some time in Egypt, they arrived in Jerusalem in 376. Melania built a convent on Mt. Olivet where she housed 60 nuns. Rufinus also lived on Mt. Olivet where there were already several monasteries of monks and nuns. Eleven years later (in 382) there came from Rome another group: Paula, a descendent of the Gracchi and Scipio families, a widow, and her daughter Eustochium together with St. Jerome then 46. Paula founded two monasteries, one for herself and her nuns, divided into three groups according to social status, another for St. Jerome and his monks. Between the monasteries of Jerusalem and Bethlehem there was much contact and friendship. While Rufinus occupied himself in the historic-ascetic works of his monks, St. Jerome gave himself up, with the help of the Jews, to the study of the Bible and ancient tongues.
  
Here he produced his great literary works, among them his Latin translation from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, now known as the Vulgate (Biblia Vulgata), which was to help so much in the diffusion of the Bible. The defence of the less orthodox opinions of Origen resulted in breaking the good relation between the two communities, and the bishop of Jerusalem, John II (386-417) with whom Rufinus sided, excommunicated the monastery of Bethlehem and tried to send St. Jerome away. In 397 peace was re-established. And in this year Melania and Rufinus left Palestine, the latter for good, the former for only a short time. A battle of words continued between Jerome and Rufinus. In 404 St. Paula died, and ten years later arrived her niece Paula the younger. In 417 arrived from Rome Melania the younger with her husband Pionius, both living in chastity, intending to lead a monastic life in Jerusalem.
  
A new storm arose. A Celtic monk Pelagius, responsible for Pelagianism, came to Palestine and Jerome immediately attacked the heresy. The followers of Pelagianism struck back and burned the monastery, and Jerome and the nuns would have been massacred if they had not withdrawn to the strong tower. Shortly after St. Eustochium died and three years later St. Jerome in 420, thus putting an end to the Latin monastic life in Bethlehem. In 431 Melania the younger built a nunnery on Mt. Olivet in which she collected 90 sisters. On the death of Pionius she built a monastery for monks beside his tomb. When she died in 489 on Mt. Olivet, the Latin monastic colony came to an end.

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