Bethlehem: Christmas Eve in the birthplace of Jesus

The soft and powerful splendour of the Light that is released from the Grotto of Bethlehem reaches every man who wants to accept it, through the grace of the Liturgy of the Church.

During the celebrations of these days, once again, the Child Jesus, the Son of God made man in Mary’s womb, rises like the Sun from above and tears through the darkness which keeps men prisoners because of sin, the presumption of being enough for themselves or for the adversities of life.

The Christmas liturgies are not the simple memory of past events, they are not merely obeying a date on the calendar: they are the living encounter, today, with the grace of the Incarnation.

In Bethlehem, as well as celebrating the TODAY of the salvation, we can sing: the Saviour was born HERE!

Christmas Eve morning in the Holy Land opened with the sound of the drums and of the bagpipes of the local scout groups. 24 December is a day of great celebration for the  local Christian communities. 

His Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa met the parish priest Fr. Amjad Sabbara and the parishioners of the Latin church of Jerusalem at the seat of the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem and then he went in a procession towards Bethlehem. On the way, he stopped in front of the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias and in front of Rachel’s Tomb, to meet the local civil and religious authorities. After having crossed the wall of separation with the Israeli territories, he made his entrance into the city of the birth of Jesus, escorted by twenty-five groups of scouts.

The start of the Christmas celebrations

In Manger Square, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem was welcomed by the Mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, and then, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, by Fr. Enrique Segovia, the guardian of the Franciscan convent of Bethlehem, and by representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities, who together look after the Basilica.

The Christmas celebrations began there, from the birthplace of the Saviour, with the First Vespers and the procession in the grotto, presided by His Beatitude, in the presence of the Franciscan fraternity of Bethlehem and by the parish priest Fr. Rami Asakrieh. 

A festive Bethlehem welcomed the Patriarch, despite the difficulties of the present period. This is the second Christmas in the times of the pandemic and without the presence of pilgrims, who are part of the pastoral life and also a source of employment for the Bethlehem people. 

Before the usual Christmas Eve Mass, the Franciscan friars and the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem  received the local political authorities in the hall of Casa Nova, the Franciscan house for pilgrims next to the Basilica of the Nativity. The President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, did not attend the Christmas dinner this year, but he was represented by the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh. The hosts were the Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Dobromir Jasztal, and the head of the Custody for relations with the Palestinian Authority, Fr. Ibrahim Faltas. 

Christmas Mass in Bethlehem

At midnight, the joy of Christmas broke the silence of the night, to the sound of the Gloria in Excelsis Deo and the bells of the Church of the Nativity. This year, St Catherine at the Nativity was very crowded,  especially by the Christians of Bethlehem.

“Compared to Christmas last year, there was a much larger participation and this is an encouraging sign,” said His beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa in his homily. “Of course, there is still a large part missing for the joy to be complete. The pilgrims are missing.” The Latin Patriarch invited everyone to pray for them and for those who work in the sector of pilgrimages and recalled that the birth of Jesus Christ in the grotto in Bethlehem has the power to change everyone’s lives and to “open up new perspectives even where it seems that the darkness is too intense.” How? “To experience Christmas, you have to listen to the voice of God,” he said. “To meet Jesus, today as then, we have to let ourselves be guided by the voice of his witnesses, his envoys.” 

“Which voices were heard in the Diocese of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem?,” asked the Patriarch. His beatitude thus recalled all the different situations of the Patriarchate: Cyprus, recently visited by Pope Francis, Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Gaza. “It is true, evil never ceases to rage on the life of the weakest and vulnerable, but the road to peace is marked out and is till our path today,” said the Latin Patriarch.

His Beatitude recalled that Christmas is a personal call to welcome the voice of God as the Virgin Mary did. 

After the Mass, the statue of the Child Jesus was taken from St Catherine’s church in a procession to the Grotto of the Nativity. The Latin Patriarch placed it where, according to tradition, the manger was: as then, today again Jesus is born to save humanity. 


 

Beatrice Guarrera