It is a different Christmas Eve from usual, but the traditions are respected: despite all the difficulties due to the Coronavirus pandemic, with this year again the celebrations of 24th December being held in Bethlehem. The liturgies were presided by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, in his first public outing since the end of quarantine after having contracted Coronavirus..
Mons. Pizzaballa started Christmas Eve in Jerusalem in the seat of the Latin Patriarchate where he received Fr. Amjad Sabbara, parish priest of the Latin church of Jerusalem, and some local Christians. From there he left to go to Bethlehem, following a pre-established route, during which the Patriarch met a number of religious and civil authorities.
On the way, the first stopping place was outside the Greek Orthodox convent of Mar Elias, where the parish priest and the mayor of Beit Jala were awaiting him. The parish priest of the Latin church of Bethlehem, Fr. Rami Asakrieh, and the mayor of Beit Sahour, on the other hand, greeted the Latin Patriarch in front of the site of Rachel’s Tomb..
Despite the restrictions that prevented the usual massive popular participation, it was a Bethlehem in celebration that greeted the arrival of the Bishop. The eleven scout groups of Bethlehem, Jenin (Burqin) and Jerusalem provided music and drums, parading in procession, as per the local tradition. Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa then entered Manger Suare, where he received the wishes of the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman. In front of the Basilica of the Nativity, the Latin Patriarch met the three representatives of the Christian communities that live in the church of Bethlehem, according to the rules of the Status Quo: the guardian of the Franciscan confraternity, Fr. Luis Enrique Segovia Marín, and two representatives respectively from the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian communities.
The First Vespers in St Catherine’s Church officially marked the start of the Christmas celebrations and, for the special occasion, the Latin Patriarch presided the daily afternoon procession which takes place in the Grotto of the Nativity.
There was then the time of silence until Midnight Mass in the Basilica of the Nativity, when bells and songs of jubilation announced the joy of Christmas. For the first time, the celebration was closed to the public, but a small delegation of local Christians - representing the clergy, young people and pilgrims – was able to attend, together with the local political authorities and the Consuls-General of Spain, Italy, France and Belgium, the four nations which have historically supported the Holy Land.
While the Christmas liturgy was taking place in St Catherine’s Church, in the Grotto of the Nativity underneath, at midnight, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, presided a short mass. It is the tradition that masses with small groups are celebrated every forty minutes from midnight until four in the afternoon on Christmas Day, like uninterrupted praise in the birthplace of the Saviour.
“In my first Christmas mass as Patriarch, I do not want to add my voice to that of all those who are well able to describe the night,” Mons. Pizzaballa said in his homily, referring to the difficult times that the world is going through due to the pandemic, “I have to and I want to give my voice to the prophecy, become an echo of the Gospel, and tell you of the grace of this hour. A child is born for us, we have been given a Son: this is the certainty of Christians. The night, any night, is not the final word in our history and that of humanity.” The Latin Patriarch reminded us that the life that started in Bethlehem defeated death and allows us to hope in that victory which still has to come about, even in these times of suffering. “In this City of Bethlehem, he was born to become food and drink, teaching us that there is no salvation outside the love given and received. Saving man is serving him, and we will be saved from this and all the other crisis and catastrophes only if we make the goodness of all our greatest interest.” (Read the complete homily).
Accompanied in a procession by the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land, the Latin Patriarch carried a statue of the Child for the last prayer in the Grotto of the Nativity underneath: it was from there, two thousand years ago, that Jesus was brought into the world.