On Friday 15 December, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land begin the Christmas Novena. In St Saviour’s church in Jerusalem, a short meditation on the topic of humility is offered every evening at 7 p.m. during the celebrations of the Vespers.
Humility and fraternity
“The common thread running through the meditations is taken from an expression of St Francis which is in the Letter to the Entire Order: ‘Brothers, look at the humility of God.’ This will be the heart of the meditations of the Christmas Novena,” says Fra Piermarco Luciano, vicar of St Saviour’s convent. Another characteristic of this year’s Novena is that the meditations have been assigned to three friars instead of only one preacher. “Francis insists a great deal on fraternity,” fra Piermarco explains, “which is why we have decided to organize this novena to emphasize this aspect.” Each friar will approach the topic from a different angle and with different resources: the Old Testament, the New Testament, Franciscan sources.
The Old Testament
Fra Sérgio Góis has been assigned the first three meditations, from 15 to 17 December included. “I will do my meditations from three texts of the Old Testament,” he says. “The first will be on what is known as the proto-evangelium, the passage of Genesis 3,15 in which in the words of God to the serpent we see that the fall of man is not a permanent situation, therefore there is already a hope.” It will then be the turn of the prophet Isaiah “who speaks of a child that will be born and a king who will reign forever: it is the promise of the coming of the Messiah.” On the third fay, the meditation will concentrate on the invitation by the prophet Zechariah to Jerusalem to rejoice because “Behold, your king is coming to you. A just saviour is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt on the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9,9). “These three texts,” fra Sérgio stresses, “show our human condition, taken up by God with the incarnation, the Messianic promise and the coming of the King, in a unique way, in humility.”
The New Testament
From 18 to 20 December, the meditations of the Novena will start from some passages of the New Testament, again following the topic of humility. The preacher will be fra Gerson Rodriguez: “The first reflection takes its cue from the invitation by Jesus to learn from Him, who is mild and humble of heart (Matt 11,29)”. At the heart of the second meditation is the Christological hymn of St Paul in the Letter to the Philippians (Phil 2,5-8), a hymn which is very dear to us. Because we sing it every Saturday during Vespers. We will meditate on the fact that Jesus, although of a divine nature, becomes a servant, as St Paul writes. Although being able to openly express his divinity, he prefers to express it through service.” The words of St Paul to the Corinthians (2Cor 8,9) are those chosen for the last of fra Gerson’s reflections, the sixth in the Novena: “(Jesus Christ) from the rich man he was, became poor for you, so that you can become rich through his poverty.” In the incarnation of the Son of God, “we are given the divine offspring, the gift of the Holy Spirit, so that we can live and make present the new humanity which Jesus has shown.”
The Christmas of Greccio
Fra Piermarco will do the last three meditations of the Christmas Novena from 21 to 23 December. The texts of reference will be the Franciscan sources and special attention will be given to the experience of St Francis in the “Christmas of Greccio”, of which it is the 800th anniversary. It is not only an anniversary but a grace that continues through the special indulgence that the Pope has granted for the faithful who visit Franciscan churches and pray before the Nativity scenes in them from 8 December 2023 to 2 February 2024.
“St Francis’s obsession was Jesus,” fra Piermarco says, who through his meditations will show how this passion also became real in Greccio, which in that 1223 became “a new Bethlehem”(Tommaso da Celano, Vita prima, XXX,84-87). “This is the particularity of the Greccio Christmas: Francis inserts the Mass into the evocation of the historic coming of Jesus. This way he allows us to understand that every time we celebrate the Eucharist it is Christmas.”. As he will say in the First Admonition: “Behold, every day He humbles himself as when he descended from His Heavenly throne into the womb of the Virgin; every day he comes to us in humble appearance; every day he descends from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of the priest. And as he showed himself to the holy Apostles in true flesh, so now shows Himself to us in the consecrated bread.”
Operators of peace
This Christmas comes at a time when the Holy Land is once again tested by a bloody conflict. “There is war because Christmas is not welcomed” fra Piermarco says again. “It is a great responsibility of man to welcome not so much a gift of God but God himself who is the gift. St John says that God has given to those who welcomed him the power of becoming his sons and one of the characteristics of the sons of God is to make peace. Every time there is war it means that there are not enough sons of God. It is a call to us to truly welcome this gift, to become operators of peace.”