To worthily celebrate this special year of Joseph, called by Pope Francis, the Custody of the Holy Land has organized special liturgies throughout 2021, in the holy places linked to the life of St Joseph. This is why on 19 October the Franciscan friars gathered in the shrine of the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem.
After the solemnity of St Joseph on 19 March and the feast day of St Joseph the worker on 1 May, this mass wanted to commemorate the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, in the shrine of the Milk Grotto, the first stage of this exile, which still also preserves the memory of the maternal gesture of Mary feeding the Child Jesus.
“In this celebration we want to pray in particular for all those who today, like the Holy Family, are forced to take the roads of exile,” said the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, who presided the celebration.
In his homily, the Custos emphasized three fundamental characteristics of the story of St Joseph, which emerge from the Gospel according to Matthew: his constant capacity to trust in God, which is then translated into obedience to God; his taking care of the child Jesus and his mother Mary; the fulfilment of the Scriptures, thanks to his obedience, which allows making God’s Salvation concrete, through his Son, Jesus. These elements must make us reflect on the teachings that St Joseph left to us all to then lead us to bring his story up to date in our times: “Joseph finds himself in the same situation as many of our Christians in the Holy Land, Gaza and Bethlehem, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, but also in many other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, who are also in flight, not out of choice but out of necessity.”
“Celebrating here in Bethlehem, in this place of the first halt of the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt, musttherefore make us more sensitive towards those who are in Joseph’s situation today, forced to take the child Jesus and his mother Mary with him and flee. If this does not happen, then all our devotion will be useless,” said Fr. Francesco Patton.
At the end of the celebration, the assembly recited the Angelus Domini in honorem sancti Ioseph, the same weekly prayer that is recited in the home of St Joseph in Nazareth.
The shrine of the Milk Grotto, just a few steps from the Basilica of the Nativity, has been venerated for centuries, thanks to the legends associated with this place. The first (dating back to the 6th century) maintains that the Virgin Mary hid there during the massacre of the Innocents, while according to the second legend, in their haste to set off on the flight to Egypt, some drops of milk of the Virgin Mary who was feeding Jesus, fell on to the ground and changed the colour of the rock from pink to white. The powdered rock has been the object of worship since at least the start of the 9th century, when Charlemagne received it as a gift. According to popular devotion, the powder of the Milk Grotto is alleged to help milk return to nursing mothers or to cure problems of sterility.
The shrine is in the care of the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land and the restoration of the grotto was completed in 2007.