“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’” – Matthew 2:16-18
Every Christmas Eve, thousands of people from around the world watch the broadcast of Midnight Mass from Bethlehem. It is a sign that Christmas has finally come! Celebrated by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, it takes place in the Church of St. Catherine. This 19th century church is the parish church for Bethlehem’s Catholics, and it adjoins the Basilica of the Nativity. (They even share a wall in common.) Each year, up to 90,000 people cram into Manger Square in order to participate in this sacred celebration.
The Church of St. Catherine is built on the spot where it is believed that Christ appeared to St. Catherine of Alexandria and predicted her martyrdom (c. 310 AD). Although the church was first mentioned in the 15th century, it was not the first structure to be erected on this spot. A monastery associated with St. Jerome was built here in the 5th century; later, a 12th century Crusader monastery stood on this site.
When we think of Bethlehem, we think of it as a place of joy. After all, it is the place where our Saviour was born! But Herod, who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth, did not share that joy. He was so afraid that this “new king” would seize his throne that he slaughtered thousands of innocent children to eliminate the perceived threat. Beneath the floor of the Church of St. Catherine is a network of caves, one of which contains the Chapel of the Holy Innocents. It is here that the bones of the innocent children who were not able to escape Herod’s wrath are buried.
A second underground chapel, the Chapel of St. Joseph, commemorates the dream in which an angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus.1 A third chapel is located in the cave where St. Jerome lived while he translated the Bible into Latin. His body is also buried here.2
As we leave the church, we walk past a statue of St. George – the patron saint of the Holy Land. It is a beautiful reminder that, although evil may exist in the world, God will overcome.
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 See Matthew 1:18-24.
2 St. Jerome was born c. 340-2 and died in Bethlehem in 420. He is a Doctor of the Church.