In dialogue with God, awaiting His coming: the solemn entrance of the Custos into Bethlehem and the start of Advent | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

In dialogue with God, awaiting His coming: the solemn entrance of the Custos into Bethlehem and the start of Advent

Bethlehem, Basilica of the Nativity – St. Catherine’s Church, November 26-27, 2011

The days celebrating the start of Advent and that inaugurate, at the same time, the new Liturgical Year, are intense and special days for the Custody of the Holy Land. In particular, the liturgy that opens Advent, namely the First Vespers and the Office of the Readings celebrated in Bethlehem on the afternoon of Saturday November 26th, was preceded in the morning by the solemn entrance of the Custos of the Holy Land, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, into St. Catherine Church, adjacent to the Basilica of the Nativity. A few years ago, it was decided for pastoral reasons that when the date of November 25th, the Feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria, who gave her name to the Church, the parish and the convent of the Franciscan Custody at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, falls near the first Sunday of Advent, the solemn entrance of the Custos celebrating the Saint’s feastday is postponed to the Saturday.

After the convivial meeting with the mukhtar, Mr. Yacob Amer, and with the notables of the parish of Jerusalem, in the divan of St. Saviour Convent, Father Pizzaballa set out for Bethlehem accompanied in procession by several members of the Custodial Curia and the cars of the Jerusalem parishioners. Escorted by the Israeli police through the sunny streets of the city, passing behind Mount Zion and continuing on the long road that leads to Bethlehem, the procession made a stop at Mar Elias, the Convent of St. Elijah, which stands like a fortress on the left of the road on the site of an ancient Byzantine monastery, and which recalls the place where the Prophet Elijah rested when he set off on a pilgrimage to Mount Oreb from Mount Carmel while fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19,4-8). At this point, which marks the end of the parish jurisdiction of Jerusalem and the start of the jurisdiction of the parish of Beit Jala, the Custos was joyfully welcomed by the civil authorities and the Christian community of Beit Jala. After exchanging greetings, the new group joined the procession of cars, the only time in the year when vehicles coming from the West Bank, which is under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, as is the case of the town of Beit Jala, are allowed to cross the frontier into the State of Israel, going beyond the wall of separation. Following the old official road that went from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, now accessible only on this particular occasion of the year, the parade reached the high wall near the site of the Tomb of Rachel, a sanctuary which is today difficult to reach due to its position next to the barrier separating Israel from the Palestinian territories then, after having followed a stretch of the wall, the parade crossed the point of entry into Bethlehem. Here, at the exact spot where there is an opening in the massive wall which marks the separation of the two peoples, the Israeli police and the Palestinian police, together on this very special occasion, shook hands, in a very moving simple and human gesture. In the meantime, the long procession, now escorted by the special corps of the Palestinian police, went through Bethlehem and its old neighbourhoods with crowds of people and children lining the streets, waiting to see and greet the Custos as he passed by.

As the Custos approached the large square in front of the Basilica of the Nativity, he continued on foot, accompanied by the local authorities and the Custodial Secretary, Father Silvio De La Fuente. Father Pizzaballa was welcomed in the centre of the square, packed with a festive crowd, by the numerous Arab scouts lined up on both sides in multicoloured uniforms, the band, and the young bagpipers. Beyond the road that crosses the square, along the paved courtyard in front of the entrance to the Basilica, the Custodial Vicar, Father Artemio Vitores, with numerous students from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum of Jerusalem and many members of the Franciscan community of the Holy Land, who had come to Bethlehem for this special solemnity, were waiting for him. On the threshold of the Basilica, next to the low passage that leads inside, and then again as soon as he entered, before going through the door on the left that leads to the cloister of the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine, Father Pizzaballa paused to cordially greet the religious of the Greek Orthodox community, with whom the Franciscans share ownership of the sanctuary. After crossing the cloister, the Custos finally stopped at the entrance to St. Catherine Church, where Father Stephane Milovitch, the present Guardian of the Basilica of the Nativity, wearing the violet liturgical robes, the colour that the Church reserves for the periods of Advent and Lent, surrounded by the altar boys and Franciscan choristers led by Father Armando Pierucci, Director of the Magnificat Institute of Jerusalem, were waiting for him. Behind them, the faithful filled the whole Church, as on the most important occasions, bringing together religious from the many congregations present in the Holy Land, friends and collaborators of the Franciscan Custody and many members of the local Christian Arab community from near and afar. At the entrance to the Church, the Custos completed the ritual of the vestition and kissing the Cross and, as the choristers and the faithful sang the Te Deum, Father Pizzaballa reached the great altar, taking up his position together with Father Artemio Vitores, Father Silvio De La Fuente, Father Noel Muscat, Discreet of the Holy Land and Father Peter Vasko, Discreet and President of the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land. At this point, the representatives of the local groups of Scouts gave the Custos one of their red scarves. “There are many divisions that afflict this land,” said Father Pizzaballa in his brief address, translated into Arabic by Father Marwan Di’des, parish priest of Bethlehem, “yet the period of Advent should really let us aspire to a new life. The divisions and incomprehension still accompany us but the hope and the possibility of building up a united community reside in the hearts of each one of us. My sincerest hope is, therefore, that Christians can truly be a torch lit with unity and love for Bethlehem and for the whole of the Holy Land.” After giving the solemn blessing, the Custos and the Custodial Vicar cordially and festively exchanged greetings in the cloister with all the friends and faithful present.

In the early afternoon, the solemn celebrations of the period of Advent started, with the first Vespers presided by the Custos and con celebrated by Father Artemio Vitores, Father Stephane Milovitch, Father Noel Muscat and Father Silvio De La Fuente. During the ceremony there was the traditional procession to the Grotto of the Nativity where, on the spot of the manger next to the small grotto called “of the Magi”, on the right of the altar of the Nativity, Father Pizzaballa lit a candle and, returning to the Church with its flame, lit the first of the four candles of the Advent crown made from fir branches and placed next to the great altar. At the end of Vespers, the celebrations continued in the mid-afternoon with the Office of Readings, presided by the Guardian of the Basilica of the Nativity, Father Stephane Milovitch. After singing psalms in praise of the fast approaching coming of the Lord and reading the start of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Is 1,1-18) and a passage from the Catechism of St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, dedicated to the dual coming of Christ (Cat. 15,1-5: PG 33,870-874), the ceremony came to an end with the procession to the Grotto of the Nativity and the incensation of the silver star that marks the birthplace of Jesus and the manger, while the whole assembly, each carrying a lighted candle, sang the Te Deum.
On the next morning, Sunday, November 27, the main parish Holy Mass at St. Catherine Church was solemnly presided by the Custos, who thus completed, in the presence of countless faithful, the celebrations inaugurating the period of Advent. The Holy Mass, con celebrated by Father Stephane Milovitch and Father Silvio De La Fuente and with the participation of the choir of the young people of Bethlehem, was in Arabic and the homily was delivered by the local parish priest, Father Marwan Di’des.

Bethlehem comes to life on these festive days, with the local people who live and get by, despite all the difficulties and the problems, with the pilgrims who fill the square in the centre, with its ancient beauty and its humble joy. Here, in a small grotto, on a silent night many years ago, all the education of the love of God was accomplished. Advent is certainly the time of hope and expectation, the immense desire to discover God near to us, but it is also time for the preparation for this encounter, the radical change of heart that shows the path that God takes to the very end. It is a difficult but extraordinary path that is already marked out at the beginning of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, where the Lord, after having raged against Israel for its ingratitude and its hypocrisy, concludes with these words: “Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool” (Isaiah 1,18). Faced with a people moving away from communion with God, denying the word and exposing themselves to violence, the Lord wants to reawaken their ears, reopen dialogue, return to their hearts and, instead of annihilating His rebellious and violent people, He takes us by surprise with His choice of non-violence, made of love, forgiveness and trust in discussion. This is the modernity of God, the modernity of His Christmas, which leads to the accomplishment of His education of salvation through the incarnation of His Word in Jesus. This is the road that leads from Bethlehem, this is the authentic meaning of waiting for Christmas, this is the wish for peace and life for every man, for the Holy Land and for the whole world.

By Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Marco Gavasso