The time to prepare for Christmas has begun in the Holy Land as well. On the eve of the first Sunday of Advent, Saturday 27 November, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, made his solemn entry into Bethlehem, as per tradition, inaugurating this period of waiting for the Saviour.
The morning started in Jerusalem, in St Saviour’s Convent, where Fr. Patton met a small representation of the Latin parish and the parish priest, Fr.AmjadSabbara.
The Custos of the Holy Land, accompanied by the Vicar Fr. DobromirJasztal, then left the convent for Bethlehem, respecting the traditional stopping points along the way to Bethlehem. In front of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias, the procession stopped to greet the civil and religious authorities of Beit Jala, and it then crossed the separation barrier between Israeli and Palestinian territories, through the checkpoint of Rachel’s Tomb, open on this special occasion.
In Bethlehem, Fr. Francesco Patton was welcomed by groups of scouts in celebration who, to the sound of the bagpipes, accompanied him along the traditional Star Street. This old street in Bethlehem was once the centre of the life of the local Christians but today is increasingly empty due to the massive emigration.
In front of the church of the Nativity, where the memory of the birth of Jesus is preserved, the three representatives of the Christian churches that guard the shrine (Latins, Greek Orthodox and Armenians) were waiting for him, as established by the Status Quo. They included the Guardian of the Franciscan Convent of Bethlehem, Fr. Enrique Segovia.
“Let us ask for the grace to live this period of Advent as a time of waiting for the most important meeting in our life which is that with the Lord,” said Fr. Patton, “and while we try to keep hope alive, let us also try to keep solidarity, brotherly love and divine closeness alive.”
Fr. Rami Asakrieh, parish priest of the Latin parish of Bethlehem wanted to express his own thanks to the Custos: “Often we find ourselves in the face of the evils of the world, like the lack of resources, natural disasters and illness, and in the middle of all this we ask ourselves, ‘Where is God?’Your presence, Father Custos, reminds us of the figure of the prophets of the Old Testament, when they arrived to bring the voice of God in the midst of people in despair. The question that we have to ask is: are we with God?” To answer, according to the parish priest of Bethlehem, we have to start this period of Advent like a time of conversion, knowing that “God is capable of transforming the world from a small and limited grotto into a place where the angels can be heard glorifying God.”
The local authorities, including the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, were also in the front row of the church.
The celebration of the first vespers on Sunday officially marked the entrance of the time of Advent and this was then followed by the procession to the Grotto of the Nativity. A candle was lit there, as a symbolic gesture which will also take place on the following Sundays of Advent, until the arrival of Christmas.
On Sunday 28 November, the Custos of the Holy Land returned to Bethlehem to preside the solemn mass in the Latin church of St Catherine, in the presence of the parishioners, the parish priest Fr. Rami Asakriehand the deputy parish priest Fr. Antonios Habib, who gave the homily.
“The Gospel,” said the Custos, “must help us read the difficulties of the present in a perspective of hope. It is this hope that drives us, like the first Christians, to grow and to love one another. It is the same hope that gave St Catherine of Alexandria the courage and the strength to offer her life and die for the name of Jesus Christ.”