CHILD OF BETHLEHEM
The statue of the Child Jesus carried in the procession at the point where the Holy Crib is remembered on Christmas Eve and which, after Epiphany, is returned to the Altar of the Madonna in the Church of St. Catherine, was commissioned by fra Gabino Montoro ofm in 1920 from the Casa Viuda Reixach in Barcelona and was made by the artist Francisco Roges.
He also made the statuette of the Child on the Throne which is carried by the Father Custos during the procession on the day of Epiphany. Both statues are made of cedar.
Several models were prepared, the one chosen having its hands joined together. The tradition of the Child Jesus at Bethlehem is a very old one, as is shown in the chronicle edited by Golubovich in the Biblioteca Biobibliografica della Terra Santa (“Bio-bibliographic library of the Holy Land”) which tells the story of the disappearance of the statue:
How the Pasha of Jerusalem took a wooden statue of the Child Jesus in order to obtain money:
“Congregating on the third of June in Bethlehem nearly all of those schismatic nations to celebrate one of their feasts, whose name I do not recall, and having entered into our convent to visit those sanctuaries and churches, they were standing around in our sacristy admiring a very beautiful sculpture of a small child that our friars normally placed in the Holy Crib on the eve of the Nativity, and they asked what it was; it was a Greek monk who replied that it was the God of the idolatrous Franks and that if the Turkish ministers were to take it from them they would have no God.
“Not an hour had passed before the Pasha, having entered into the Church of St. Catherine, where by chance he had gone with his whole court, demanded that the Child be brought to him, because he wanted to see it; he eagerly held it in his hands before returning it to our dragoman (interpreter) without saying a word.
“That evening when he was staying in our large church (where it was common for such important people to stay and pass the night), discussing the matter he was told that he had made a big mistake in returning the Child, since had he kept it the Franks would undoubtedly have paid thousands of piasters to ransom it, as it was held in such high esteem by them and adored as the Son of God.
“The Pasha, judging that he could gain some advantage from this situation, immediately sent his dragoman for the Child, making him promise not to allow it to be lost or in any way damaged, and with this vain hope it was taken to his home in Jerusalem. The Father Guardian, who was advised of this, maintained total silence and never made any mention of it.
“Three months passed, and seeing that the friars had not spoken a word about it, he called his dragoman to him and told him he was amazed that the Franks held their God in such low esteem. The dragoman replied that the God adored by the Franks was Three in One. He was in heaven, and that Child represented only the son of God in human flesh, which the Francs placed in the Holy Crib on the eve of his Nativity, to represent the mystery of that Nativity. To which the Pasha retorted: he knew very well that this was their real and true God, but he now assumed that to save the expense of ransoming it they were equivocating in this fashion; however, no longer wishing to keep it in his home, he would return it to Bethlehem as a show of kindness; and placing it in the hands of his dragoman, he said to him that he should return with at least 100 piasters.
“In the end, the Pasha had to be content, after much to- and froing, with two silk robes. To the praise of Christ. Amen.”
(T.S. 1969, p. 378)
It is clear that the traditional representation of the Child Jesus is a very old one linked to devotion, one which Francis of Assisi and his friars helped to popularize and develop. In the year 1414 there is documentation of a shipment from the Holy Land to Italy of statuettes of the Child, a custom which has continued to the present day. Each day in fact, not only the Franciscans but pilgrims themselves love to bring home statuettes of the Child Jesus as a memento of the Holy Place of the Nativity.
The Church of St. Catherine