Despite the war, it is Christmas in Bethlehem. The place where the light of hope has never gone out is in the limelight of the whole world : in the Basilica of the Nativity, where Our Lord was born and continues to be born in the heart of every Christian.
The celebrations of 24 December took place in a climate that was not only rainy, from the meteorological point of view, but also cold and austere, after the decision to limit the parades, the music, the lights, the celebrations and the songs, in solidarity with the Palestinian brothers in Gaza.
In the main square of Bethlehem, in front of the Basilica, instead of the usual and majestic Christmas tree, a Nativity scene was set up amid the rubble: the star, here, is the cavity made by the explosion of a bomb in sheet metal.
Towards Bethlehem; the first entrance as a Cardinal
The Patriarch of Jerusalem of the Latins, H. B. Pierbattista Pizzaballa presided over the liturgies. This year he was joined by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, His Holiness’s Almoner, who had come to one of the most dangerous areas in the word to pray for peace.
The journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem did not undergo any changes: the first stopping place was the Greek Orthodox convent of Mar Elias. Then the Israeli police escorted the Patriarch to Rachel’s Tomb, where he entered the Palestinian territories. When he arrived at the start of Star Street, the journey on foot accompanied only by the scouts of Bethlehem began. This is his first solemn entrance as Cardinal into the city where Jesus was born.
In Piazza della Mangiatoia the invocation for peace
As soon as he arrived in the Square, in front of the Nativity scene of rubble, the Patriarch dedicated a thought to peace: “The message of Christmas is not violence but peace,” he said. “Pray for peace and ask for a permanent ceasefire. We have to stop the violence in Gaza and allow people to resume their normal lives.” The Mayor of Bethlehem, Hanna Hanania, welcomed the Patriarch in the square together with the military and civilian authorities. According to the Status quo, Fr. Luis Enrique Segovia Marín, Guardian of the Franciscan fraternity of Bethlehem, together with representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities, were waiting for them in front of the Basilica of the Nativity.
First vespers and the procession to the Grotto of the Nativity
The First Vespers celebrated in St Catherine’s church marked the liturgical start of Christmas Eve. The parish priest of St Catherine’s church in Bethlehem, Fr. Rami Asakrieh, welcomed the Patriarch and the Pope’s Almoner with words of hope: “We continue to celebrate Christmas after the disappointment of the kings of this world, to announce the words of the real King, Jesus Christ, who said: “I give you my peace, not as the world gives it.” Only his peace is real, which started with his birth in this holy place, Bethlehem, saying he was the Emmanuel, a sign that God is with us, and with his light he is stronger than the power of darkness.”
In the afternoon there was the procession in the Grotto of the Nativity, in an intimate atmosphere of contemplation and prayer, in one of the holiest places in the whole of Christianity.
Before going down into St Catherine’s church for the nocturnal Mass, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land gathered, as is usual at Christmas, for dinner with the Patriarch and some representatives of the civil and institutional authorities.
The bells at midnight: it’s Christmas!
The Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem stepped up their pace at midnight, at St Catherine’s church, crowded with local faithful- who replaced the usual international pilgrims, for whom travelling to Bethlehem is impossible this year.
When Cardinal Pizzaballa intoned the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, announcing Christmas, the bells of the Basilica rang out in celebration and the child was uncovered on the altar.
The Eucharistic celebration, accompanied by the choir of the Custody of the Holy Land, was not as joyful as in the past, but participation was not any the less heartfelt. The Patriarch offered a profound reflection on the verse of the Gospel: “because there was no room for them” (Luke 2,7). «At this moment – said the Patriarch – our thoughts cannot be far from those who have lost everything in this war, including their closest loved ones, and who are now displaced, alone and paralyzed by their grief. My thoughts go, without distinction, to all who are affected by this war, in Palestine and Israel and the whole region. I am especially close to those who are in mourning and weeping and waiting for a concrete gesture of closeness and care».
The Cardinal spoke of hatred, of rancour and the spirit of vendetta which suffocate the heart and leave no room for the presence of the other. “And yet,” the Patriarch emphasized, “we need the other. Because Christmas is exactly this, it is God who becomes humanly present, and who opens our hearts to a new way of looking at the world.”
The words addressed to the Christians of Gaza: 'You are our light'
Then he broke away from the text (the full homily is here) and addressed the Christians of Gaza directly, asking for a simultaneous translation into Arabic for a more authentic reception of his message: “May the Lord also be reborn in our community in Gaza: I used to come and see you every year and spend a few days with you for the Christmas holidays and only God knows how many attempts I have made to be there with you. You are not alone and we will never abandon you. Be courageous as you have been so far: you are now living through fear, tragedy and death, but at this time you are our light. May you truly feel all this warmth and our affection from Bethlehem.”
The Patriarch concluded with the exhortation to take the joy of Christmas everywhere: “Christmas is the light that comes towards us, the light that comes for us. Leave here with a smile and with your eyes full of light, in spite of everything, because today Jesus is with us: this is our joy and we have to take this joy everywhere we go, because we are not afraid. Never be afraid!”
At the end of the Mass, the statue of the Child Jesus was carried in a procession from St Catherine’s to the Grotto of the Nativity, and the Latin Patriarch placed it on the spot where, according to tradition, the manger stood: today again, as then, Jesus is born to save humanity.