A festive Bethlehem joyfully welcomed the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, Monsignor Pierbattista Pizzaballa. This is how every 24th December begins in the city where Jesus was born. The celebrations for Christmas Eve, according to tradition, are preceded by the sound of the songs and drums of the scouts of the Holy Land, who wait for the bishop to make the solemn entry into Manger Square. Setting out from Jerusalem, Mons. Pizzaballa follows the same route every Christmas to the Basilica of the Nativity. This year again, the first stopping place was the Greek Orthodox convent of Mar Elias, where he met the parish priest and the mayor of Beit Jala. Then, in front of Rachel’s Tomb, where it is possible to stop only twice a year, there was the exchange of greetings between the bishop and the parish priest of St Catherine’s church in Bethlehem, Fr. Rami Asakrieh, and the mayor of Beit Sahour. Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa then entered Bethlehem, welcomed by its mayor, Anton Salman. As required by 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 him in front of the church of the Nativity.
The First Vespers celebrated in St Catherine’s church at four in the afternoon marked the entrance into Christmas Eve. Adding to the climate of joy in Bethlehem there were the many pilgrims from all over the world, who joined in the afternoon prayers and waited for the night’s Mass.
Before going into St Catherine’s church for Mass, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land came together, as is the custom at Christmas, for dinner with the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate and the civic authorities. There was the Palestinian President Mahoumud ʿAbbas, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, and a Representative of His Majesty King Abdullah II, Mr Musa Bek Al Daud.
The Christmas Eve celebrations in Bethlehem came into their own at midnight when Mons. Pizzaballa started to sing the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, announcing Christmas, together with the festive bells. The local political authorities and the consuls-general of Spain, Italy, France and Belgium, the four nations defined Catholic, were in the front row.
“We could say that Christmas is the day when we are asked to question ourselves once again on where we are,” the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate said in his homily. “Are we with the shepherds on their way, searching for the Emanuel, the God-with-us, in our lives and in that of the world, or are we shut up in our palaces?”
The model to imitate in our everyday life, according to the bishop, must be that of Bethlehem; of humility, poverty, being small, even though it is often hard for us. “This happens when we adopt the refusal to accept in our reality the existence of others who are different from ourselves, whether they are Jewish, Muslim or Christian,” Pizzaballa continued. “It happens when we are tired of speaking about peace and building it up, but we consider it a utopia that is impossible to achieve.” In this situation the only thing is to look at the child, carried symbolically in a procession at the end of the Mass to the Grotto of the Nativity. “A child can arouse in anyone, even in the hardest of hearts, tenderness and a smile,” said Mons. Pizzaballa . “That smile and that tenderness are part of the glory with which the angels enveloped the shepherds. May the Child of Bethlehem arouse in all of us so much tenderness and once again offer us the gift of a smile. Even though it will not solve all our problems, that Child will certainly make us happy.”