The Epiphany: the Christian celebration that recalls the first public manifestation of the Lord, with the homage that was paid to him by the three Magi in the Bethlehem manger. After the Saviour come into the world, which is celebrated on 25th December, the Epiphany prepares the celebration of the baptism of Christ which concludes, on Sunday 8th January, the Christmas period. In the Gregorian calendar, this festivity falls on 6th January, the same day on which the Julian calendar remembers the Orthodox Christmas Eve.
Because of the coincidence of the two feast-days, the Status Quo regulates the worshipping and celebrations of the various Christian Churches, so that all the Holy Places in Bethlehem can be accessible and enjoyed by all, without overlapping. The Custody of the Holy Land celebrates the Epiphany from 5th January, with the Custos making a solemn entry into the city of Bethlehem and the grotto of the Nativity; on the morning of 6th January, the Custos Father again presides the solemn eucharistic celebration in the adjacent St Catherine’s Basilica.
Solemn entry into Bethlehem and first vespers
The day of 5th January started in the Capitular Hall of St Saviour’s convent where the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, received and greeted various delegations of the Catholic parish of Jerusalem. As according to tradition, before entering Bethlehem, the Custos stopped at the Orthodox monastery of Mar Elias, where he met some representatives of the parish community from the nearby Arab village of Beit Jala. When it at last reached the gates of the city, the delegation from the Custody crossed the wall that surrounds Bethlehem, to enter the complex which surrounds Rachel’s Tomb. From here, the procession continued into Bethlehem, moving along “Star Street” to Nativity Square where the the friars of the local community were waiting for them. Escorted by various musical bands of the scouts and the joyous embrace of many faithful, the procession led by Father Patton finally entered the Basilica through the “Door of Humility”. The Custos was received by the representatives of the Greek and Armenian churches who, together with the Franciscans, look after the holy place. After having carried out the rituals imposed by the Status Quo in the nearby courtyard of St Jerome, the Custos entered St Catherine’s church on the notes of the Te Deum, sung by the choir of the Basilica. Father Patton then greeted the authorities and the parish associations present, and then thanked the parish priest of St Catherine, Father Rami Asakirieh and the guardian of the convent, Fr. Henrique Segovia. “All the peoples of the world come to Bethlehem represented by the Magi and, through the Magi, the message of Bethlehem reaches the whole world. Thank you for your welcome." The day then continued with the first vespers, during which the procession led by the Custos went down into the grotto of the Nativity, and it ended with the office of the readings, presided by the guardian, Fr. Henrique. During the procession towards the grotto, Fr. Patton held up a reliquary holding a fragment of the cradle of Jesus, donated to the Custody of the Holy Land by Pope Francis in 2019 and coming from the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
Solemn mass and procession of the Magi
The next morning, the Father Custos presided the solemn mass in St Catherine’s church. The celebration was attended by the diplomatic representatives of the four countries that are historically friends of the Custody of the Holy Land: the Consul-General of Italy, Giuseppe Fedele; the Consul General of Belgium, Wilfried Pfeffer; the Deputy Consul General of France in Jerusalem, Quentin Lopinot; and the Deputy Consul General of Spain in Jerusalem, Paloma Serra.
In his homily, Fr. Patton dwelled on the actions that best express the journey of the Magi, emphasizing how this can be summarized with three verbs: seek, adore and give.
“The Magi are people who seek; they have a great desire in their hearts: the desire to be able to meet the King of Kings, the Lord. The Magi are the image of the whole of humanity looking for the child Jesus.
When they arrive in Bethlehem [...] they are overjoyed and the first thing they do is prostrate themselves to adore the child. Only if we put him at the centre of our choices, will our choices bring good fruit."
“The Magi then give the most precious things they have: gold, incense and myrrh. The Fathers of the Church have always interpreted these gifts as the sign that the Magi recognize that that baby is King (gold), God (incense) and has come to give life for humanity (myrrh).”
After the morning mass, the celebrations continued in the afternoon with the second sung vespers and with the ritual procession ad Cryptam Nativitatis (the grotto of the Nativity). The celebrations came to an end with going round the courtyard of St Jerome the traditional three times where, remembering the three Magi, the friars gave gofts of incense and myrrh to the faithful.
Filippo De Grazia