It was a great blessing during our pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2018 to celebrate Mass in the cell of St Jerome which is in the crypt of the Church of St Catherine right next to the church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The picture illustrating this blog post was taken in that chapel.
St Jerome retired to that cave so he could be next to the site of the nativity of Our Lord. The chapel of the nativity is immediately on the other side of the wall behind the altar you see in the picture.
St Jerome wanted to spend the end of his life there. In other words, St Jerome loved baby Jesus. What I find to touching is that Jerome has the reputation of being a bearded, bald headed, intellectual curmudgeon.
Beneath that crusty exterior was a tender heart. I discovered this conversation between St Jerome and the Christ Child. It seems in later life he was called to be a bishop but refused the invitation. He wanted to stay in his cell so he could stay close to Baby Jesus. He wrote:
“Nothing can draw me away from the Manger of Christ. There is for me no better place on earth. From that very place at which God gave to me His Son from heaven, I would like to send my soul back to Him in heaven.
“Whenever I look upon this place, my heart holds a sweet conversation with the Infant Jesus
“I say to Him: ‘Oh, Lord Jesus, how you tremble! How hard is your bed for the sake of my salvation! How shall I ever repay this?’
“Then it seems to me that the Holy Child replies, ‘From you, Jerome, I ask only the song, Glory to God in the Highest! Let that be enough for you. My need will be deeper yet in Gethsemane and on Calvary.
“I speak further: ‘Dear little Jesus, I must give you something. Let me give you all my wealth.’
“The Child replies, ‘From the beginning the Heavens and the Earth are mine. I do not need your treasures. Give them to the poor. I shall receive that as if you had done it to me.’
“I speak again: ‘Dear little Jesus, this I shall do gladly, but I must also give something just for you, or I shall die of sorrow.’
“The Child replies: ‘Dear Jerome, since you are so generous of heart, I will tell you what you may give to me. Give me your sins—your bad conscience—and your condemnation!’
“I ask: ‘What will you do with them?’
“The infant Jesus says: ‘I want to take them upon my shoulders. This shall be my glory, and my glorious deed, as Isaiah once said, that I shall take your sins upon myself and carry them away.’
“At this I begin to weep bitterly, and say: ‘O, Child, dear, holy Child, how deeply you have touched my heart! I thought you wanted something good—but you want everything in me which is bad! Oh, take what is mine! Give me what is Yours! Then I shall be free from sin, and assured of eternal life!’”
This conversation moves me tremendously–maybe because I identify with the bookish, bald, bearded grump. The other thing that touches me is that in the economy of the church’s calendar St Jerome today is followed by Therese of Lisieux–St Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face.
She had the devotion to the Christ Child in the manger and Christ Crucified. The juxtaposition of the beautiful infant and the death he would face is too great for words. The wood of the cross is made from the wood of the manger. Bethlehem means “House of Bread” in Hebrew and “House of Flesh” in Arabic and Aramaic. “Manger” means “to eat” in French so here the Bread of Life who takes flesh becomes the child of Bethlehem.
It reminds me of that sweet Christmas poem by Mary Coleridge
I saw a stable, low and very bare,
A little child in a manger.
The oxen knew Him, had Him in their care,
To men He was a stranger.
The safety of the world was lying there.
And the world’s danger.