Christmas Eve and Night in Bethlehem: the chronicle of a religious and social event | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

Christmas Eve and Night in Bethlehem: the chronicle of a religious and social event

Bethlehem, 24th - 25th December 2011

This is the chronicle of the Holy Night of Bethlehem: it is such a long night that – so to speak – it begins in the day. In the heart of the Holy Land, the religious aspect entails a very complex sequence of rituals, protocols and social and political life that cannot be separated from one another.

1) The Prologue in Jerusalem
The Holy Night of Bethlehem begins in Jerusalem. Around midday, the notables of the parish of Jerusalem, led by their mukhtar, Mr. Jakob Amer, go to the Latin Patriarch to accompany him to Bethlehem. The Patriarch Fouad Twal receives them with the canons, the parish priest of Jerusalem, Father Feras Hejazin and the Bishops William Shomali and Kamal Batish, who after the customary speeches and greetings, will individually wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

2) The procession to Bethlehem
A long procession of cars (more than sixty), escorted by the Israeli police, reaches the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias, which marks the border of the parish of Jerusalem. Here the mayors of the neighbouring villages of Bet Sahur and Bet Jala are waiting for them, together with members of their communities and Father Ibrahim Faltas, in charge of the protocol with the Palestinian National Authority for the Custody of the Holy Land. This is one of the rare occasions when cars with Palestinian number-plates are allowed into territory under Israeli control. After greetings, the procession continues, to stop once again at Rachel’s Tomb (the original boundary of the municipality of Bethlehem) where the representatives of the Catholic associations, led by the parish priest of Bethlehem, Father Marwas Di’des, are waiting. Everybody then gets back in the cars and, having got through the last diaphragm of separation, the long procession of cars – now numbering about a hundred – slowly moves towards the Basilica of the Nativity. It is a great day of celebration for Bethlehem and all its inhabitants are in the streets for a walk, to meet, exchange greetings and greet from the pavements the Patriarch and the other ministers who come to celebrate Christmas here. Christians from other towns such as Jericho, Jerusalem and Ramallah can also be met here, where they have come to experience this joyful atmosphere with their friends and relatives in Bethlehem. For Bethlehem, Christmas is a manifestation of collective identity and a moment of self-representation as the Patriarch also underlined in his homily in the Midnight Mass: “We can be proud because, of all the continents and all the places in the world, God chose our land, Palestine, this place, as the birthplace of the Saviour.”

3) The arrival in Manger Square and the Patriarch’s entry into the Basilica of the Nativity
At last the procession arrives in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, ninety minutes late, which has caused some discontent amongst the ministering priests who, lined up punctually in the square according to the strict protocol of the status quo, had been waiting all this time in the cold, but especially because of the delay the scheduled liturgy of the First Vespers of Christmas will have to be cancelled. Amidst a great crowd of photographers and journalists from all over the world, the Patriarch is greeted by the town’s authorities, including the mayor, Victor Batarse, the governor Abdelfatah Hmayel and the chief of police Khaled Tamini. This is followed by the solemn entry into the Basilica. In front of the “Door of Humility”, there are the introductory rites presided by the Guardian of St. Catherine’s Convent, Father Stéphane Milovitch, attentively followed by the representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches.

4) Conclusion of the entry of the Patriarch into the Church of St. Catherine and procession to the grotto of the Nativity
The Patriarch and his entourage enter the Basilica of the Nativity and go into St. Catherine’s Church through the cloister of St. Jerome. The liturgy is concluded with the greetings of the parish priest of Bethlehem and the blessing by the Patriarch. After a short pause, it is time for the procession to enter the Grotto of the Nativity, presided by the Guardian Father Stéphane, with the assistance of the Patriarch, Mons. Fouad. Against the background of the beautiful Latin songs of this procession, the star marking the place of the incarnation of the Word and the manger where the Child Jesus was laid are incensed.

5) Dinner with the President of the Palestinian National Authority, Mahmoud Abbas
Every year the Friars Minor of the Custody of the Holy Land invite the President of the Palestinian National Authority to Casa Nova for Christmas dinner and this convivial moment is now traditional, becoming an element of the protocol of the Christmas events in Bethlehem. In the absence of the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa (engaged in the liturgical celebration in Nazareth) it was his vicar, Father Artemio Vitores who acted as host. Speaking in Italian, with Father Ibrahim Faltas translating into Arabic, Father Artemio recalled the meaning of Christmas for St. Francis and thanked President Abbas for having accepted the invitation again this year and above all for his work in support of hope, peace and freedom for Palestine. The Patriarch Fouad Twal then spoke, thanking the Franciscan Friars Minor for their hospitality and hoping that President Abbas can continue his political engagement for peace in Palestine, the same peace that was announced by the angels in Bethlehem on the Night of Christmas and addressed to all men of goodwill. The dinner was also attended by the Prime Minister of the island state of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonzales, a representative from the United Arab Emirates, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian National Authority, Salam Fayyad and the Jordanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mansour Giuda, who brought the greetings of King Abdallah and recalled the proactive commitment of his country on behalf of the Christian churches. President Mahmoud Abbas then took the floor, thanking the Franciscans for this celebration which is repeated every year and wishing peace, love and serenity to all the Christians of Palestine. “We will continue to work for peace for Palestine and for the Arab world,” the President said, “and we want relations with Israel as good neighbours. Everyone has to understand that peace is the best solution for us all.”

6) The Holy Mass of Christmas Night
The longest awaited moment has finally arrived: the Holy Mass that truly represents the incarnation and passion of Christ, renewing the miracle of salvation through the mercy of God. The Mass was preceded by the “Crib of Greccio”, a moment of prayer which recalls the invention of the Christmas Crib and the meaning of Christmas for St. Francis. The liturgy then began with the Office of the Readings and the Mass with the singing of the Gloria, the ringing of the bells and the uncovering of the traditional statue of the Child of Bethlehem by the first sacristan, Brother John Bomah. The songs were performed by the Yasmeen choir of the Magnificat Institute and by the choir of the Custody of the Holy Land, conducted by Hania Soudah Sabbara with Father Armando Pierucci at the organ, who also composed the songs of the Mass (Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei), performed today for the first time. There was also the St. Angela choir of Budapest, who had come in the company of a Hungarian diplomatic representation led by the Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semièn, who was joined by the other consular diplomatic representations who traditionally attend Midnight Mass. President Mahmoud Abbas was present from the start of the mass to the homily of the Patriarch (as he is a Muslim, he left the church before the start of the Eucharistic liturgy, together with the Muslim members of his staff, whilst the Christians stayed on). The Holy Mass was celebrated by the Patriarch Fouad Twal, assisted by the Bishops William Shomali and Kamal Batish of the Latin Patriarchate, Bishop Melki of the Syrian-Catholic church, Archbishop Minassian of the Armenian Catholic Church, the Armenian Catholic Exarch Telekian and the Emeritus Bishop of Vigevano Claudio Baggini, together with dozens of priests from the Holy Land and all over the world. At the same time as the solemn mass in St. Catherine’s Church, the parish of Bethlehem with its priests celebrated Christmas Mass in the grotto. At the end of the Mass in St. Catherine’s, the Patriarch took the statue of Child Jesus placed under the altar to carry it in a procession with all the friars and celebrants into the grotto of the Nativity: here the statue was placed first on the star and then in the crib, with a moving liturgy which, for reasons of space, is precluded to the majority but which can be seen thanks to Palestinian television which filmed it. Holy Masses were then celebrated in the grotto throughout the night.

By Brother Riccardo Ceriani
Photos of the Entrance of the Patriarch by Marco Gavasso
Photos of the Christmas Mass and Procession in the Grotto by Giovanni Zennaro and Alice Caputo