"The glory of the Lord has dawned upon you": the feast of the Epiphany in Bethlehem | Custodia Terrae Sanctae

"The glory of the Lord has dawned upon you": the feast of the Epiphany in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, Basilica of the Nativity, 5th – 6th January 2012

The celebrations for the Epiphany which take place in the Holy Land begin on 5th January and are particularly intense and moving. This year again, followed by the procession of cars from Jerusalem, which were joined by those from Bethlehem, Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the Custos of the Holy Land, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, crossed the wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian Territories of the West Bank close to the Israeli site of Rachel’s Tomb, and solemnly entered Bethlehem in the late morning of 5th January.

Accompanied by the local civil authorities and the festive band of the Palestinian scouts, and surrounded by the affection of the people, the Custos reached Manger Square and, after greeting the Greek Orthodox and Armenian religious who were waiting for him next to the Basilica of the Nativity, then went through the Door of Humility which leads into the Church. Welcomed by the Guardian of the Basilica of the Nativity, Brother Stephane Milovitch, the Franciscan cantors conducted by Brother Armando Pierucci, director of the Magnificat Institute, the Custody’s school of music in Jerusalem, and the entire Franciscan community, Brother Pizzaballa completed the rite of vestition and, in St. Catherine’s Church, packed with religious from the many congregations in the Holy Land, pilgrims and local Christians, presided the solemn First Vespers in the afternoon, concelebrated by Brother Artemio Vitores, the Custodial Vicar, and by Brother Noel Muscat, discreet of the Holy Land. On this occasion there was the first procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, with the incensement of the Manger.
Later, Brother Stephane Milovitch presided the Office of the Readings, assisted in the liturgical celebration by Brother Silvio De La Fuente, the Custodial Secretary. With a second procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, the Franciscan community again paid tribute to the birthplace of Jesus.
At midnight, it was once again Brother Pizzaballa who presided the Holy Mass in the Grotto of the Nativity, at the small altar of the Grotto of the Magi, next to the manger, which is on the right, near the silver Star and which belongs to the Franciscans, who can celebrate their functions here. Small groups of religious, friends and collaborators of the Franciscan Custody and some local Christians also wanted to take part in this intimate ceremony, and they found room inside the grotto and even on the steps that lead to the upper part of the Basilica. Brother Pizzaballa thus inaugurated the cycle of Holy Masses which followed on one another in the Grotto until dawn.

On the morning of 6th January, in the Franciscan church of St. Catherine, the solemn Holy Mass was presided by H. E. Cardinal Giovanni Coppa, Apostolic Nuncio Emeritus in the Czech Republic who, exactly 32 years ago, on the day of the Epiphany, was ordained Bishop by Pope John Paul II. Alongside Cardinal Coppa, as concelebrants, there were the Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Vigevano, H.E. Monsignor Claudio Baggini, the Custos of the Holy Land, Brother Pierbattista Pizzaballa, and the Custodial Vicar, Brother Artemio Vitores. Many other priests wanted to join in the ceremony and took up positions at the sides of the great altar. The liturgy was elegantly animated by the Magnificat and Jasmeen Choirs of the Custody, conducted by Hania Soudah Sabbara and accompanied on the organ by Brother Armando Pierucci. Present at the solemn celebration, in a church once again full of people, there were also the Consuls General of the four Latin Nations, Italy, France, Spain and Belgium. The homily was pronounced in Arabic by the parish priest of Bethlehem, Brother Marwan Di'des, who recalled attention to the fundamental role of personal freedom in recognizing Jesus of Christ, the Son of God and Saviour, when He fully manifested himself to the world. At the same time, outside the Basilica, the Greek Orthodox religious were preparing for the solemn entrance of their Patriarch on the occasion of the start of the celebrations for the Orthodox Christmas, attracting the general interest of the city and the many pilgrims gathered there.

Liturgical offices were held one after another throughout the day in the Basilica, and especially in the Grotto of the Nativity, accompanied by the songs and processions of the different Christian confessions which, on this special day, stand next to one another to exalt the one and only Lord. In the afternoon, the Custos, with Brother Artemio Vitores at his side, once again presided the Solemn Vespers, at the end of which there was the conclusive procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, with the Franciscan community repeating the gesture of the Magi, who had come from distant lands to adore the Child, presenting to Jesus in the manger the gifts that these exotic sovereigns had brought with them on their journey: gold, frankincense and myrrh. These royal gifts were offered to a new king, whose birth had long been awaited and at last announced by extraordinary signs in the sky. After having again incensed the manger and the altar of the Grotto of the Magi and having paid tribute to the silver Star that indicates the exact spot of the birth of Our Lord, Brother Pizzaballa took in his hands, in the solemn liturgical vestments, the statue of Jesus, Prince of Peace, seated on the regal throne and, surrounded by the whole Franciscan community, the many religious and the crowd that had gathered here on this day of celebration, and crossed the beautiful cloister of the Basilica, whilst the faithful were already thronging to express their devotion to the Son of God who had manifested himself to the world. He then entered St. Catherine’s church where many people were still waiting. Here, before the great altar, the regal statue of Jesus was at last offered to the adoration of the faithful, from the religious authorities to the simplest people, who had flocked to this Holy Place in great numbers to show their affection and faith before this Child King who, by coming into the world in absolute humility, changed the story of man forever.

The prophet Isaiah says: "Arise [Jerusalem], shine, for your light has come,/ the glory of the Lord has dawned upon you" (Isaiah 60,1). In the Epiphany, Brother Pizzaballa explained, "God appears to the whole of humanity, His presence in the world truly becomes universal, He addresses every human being and asks each one of us to open up and welcome this universal divine manifestation, this concrete gift of salvation." God, therefore, in the Epiphany of His Son made man, truly calls everyone and reconciles all peoples with himself. Pope Benedict XVI writes: "The path of the Magi of the Orient is for the liturgy only the start of a great procession which continues throughout history. The pilgrimage of humanity towards Jesus Christ begins with these men – towards that God who was born in a stable; who died on the cross and who, Risen, remains with us every day, until the end of the age (cf. Mt 28,20). [...] Big and small, kings and servants, men of all cultures and all peoples come. The men of the Orient are the first, followed by many, over the centuries. After the great vision of Isaiah, the reading taken from the Letter to the Ephesians expresses the same concept in sober and simple terms: people share the same inheritance (cf. Ephesians 3,6)". An inheritance in which we, who have come here to Bethlehem on the day of the Epiphany of the Lord Jesus, also share.

By Caterina Foppa Pedretti
Photos by Giovanni Zennaro and Alice Caputo