Bethlehem: the Solemnity of the Epiphany 

Tuesday 5th and Wednesday 6th January 2021, as per tradition for the whole of the Church, are dedicated to the liturgies of the Epiphany, including in the Holy Land. Just as the Three Magi did, the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, took the road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem in Judea to visit the Child Jesus, laid in a manger.

Epiphany, the feast of the revelation of Jesus to the Gentiles, represented by the Three Magi, also followed the usual programme this year. On the morning of 5th January, the Custos of the Holy Land met a small group of worshippers representing the parish of St Saviour in Jerusalem, led by the parish priest Fr Amjad Sabbara. The parish priest, present at the meeting, sincerely wanted to emphasise his joy at having seen great mutual support in the community in these particular times and, above all, over the Christmas period.  “In particular,” said Fr. Amjad “I want to thank the Committee of the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem for having donated 300 gifts for the children of the Old City at Christmas.” 

“I am very pleased with all our parishes of the Holy Land,” said the Custos, Fr. Patton. “Being able, as they are doing, to look after the ill and those in economic difficulties, even though we are all in difficulty and suffering: this, for me, is a very important sign of hope, which I connect with the experience of the Magi. The Magi come to Jesus with the desire to share, by offering their best gifts and the encounter with Jesus always makes us capable of sharing.”

After the meeting, a small group of Franciscans went to Bethlehem.

As on the first Sunday of Advent, the Status Quo requires two stops: the first, at the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias, where the Custos met a representative of the parish of Beit Jala; the second, at the exit of the Israeli checkpoint situated immediately after Rachel’s Tomb, open exceptionally on this feast day. After the two meetings, the Custos reached the entrance of “Star Street” which he walked down on foot beside the local authorities and preceded by some delegations of Scouts whose bagpipes and drums added entertainment to the moment.

When he reached  Manger Square, in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, Fr. Patton was received by the civil authorities, then he went towards the small door that leads into the Basilica. Preceded by a small delegation of Franciscans who live in the convent of St Catherine at the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Custos solemnly made his entrance after having greeted the representatives of the two other Christian denominations who live in the Basilica of the Nativity. The celebration of the entrance then moved into the Latin part, where the Custos was received by the guardian of the Convent, Fr. Enrique Segovia, who accompanied Fr. Patton to the Church of St Catherine where the parish priest, Fr. Rami Asakrieh performed the liturgy and the usual greetings.

We have walked in the steps of the Magi, to meet and adore the Lord,” commented the Custos from the altar. “Today the Lord has offered us another mild day, of light, sunshine and warmth. May this also be a sign of hope for the New Year which has just started. May it be for all a year of rebirth and may the gift that the Father makes to humanity warm our hearts, our lives and our families.  Happy Epiphany.”

After the solemn entrance, as per tradition, the first pontifical vespers of the solemnity of the Epiphany were celebrated, with the incensation of the Grotto of the Nativity. The Office of the Readings ended and opened this first sunny day of celebration, which concluded with a new incensation of the Star of the Nativity, of the Manger and of the Latin altar inside the Grotto of the Nativity.

On 6th January, while the Christian Orthodox communities who follow the liturgies laid down by the Julian calendar, started their solemn celebrations for Christmas, the Latin community met again at the church of St Catherine for the Celebration of the Eucharist, presided by the Custos of the Holy Land. A number of civil authorities and representatives of parish groups were present at the celebration, as well as the Consuls of Belgium and of Italy  and two representatives from the Consulates of Spain and France.

On this solemnity of the Epiphany, I think that we have to learn to look at the whole of humanity as a humanity of brothers,” said Fr. Patton in his comment on the Gospel. “All of humanity is asked to kneel in front of the Child of Bethlehem. All of humanity is asked to offer him gold, that is to recognise him as the only Lord in their lives; to offer him incense, that is, to recognise him as the true God who appears to us with the face of a child; to offer him myrrh, that is to recognise that Our Lord and God chose to share all our existence, including suffering and death precisely to redeem us and save us from suffering and earth.”

The celebration of the Latins then continued with the second Vespers  in the afternoon, which concluded the important celebration. The highlight, as per tradition, was walking around the St Jerome’s Cloister, facing St Catherine’s Church, with three Franciscans wearing capes of three different colours, physically representing the three Magi, with gifts of incense and myrrh for the local faithful and the pilgrims who had gathered for the celebration.

 

Giovanni Malaspina