For the solemnity of the Epiphany, the City of Bethlehem again welcomed a large number of pilgrims who came to celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings. The liturgies of the day were led by the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton, and by many friars of the Custody.
As per tradition, on January 5 at the Church of St. Savior, the Custos welcomed representatives of the parish of St. Savior in Jerusalem led by the Moukthar, who represents the Latin community, for the exchange of greetings. The delegation then followed the Custos to the Monastery of Mar Elias, where the meeting with the Catholic community of Beit Jala took place and later they all went to the Basilica of the Nativity passing through the checkpoint of the Tomb of Rachel where they met with the pastor of Bethlehem. The warm welcome extended by the parade of the different scout groups introduced the Custos and the delegation, accompanying them in the last stretch toward the Basilica, before which the Custos greeted the representatives of the other Churches. He then solemnly entered the Basilica, in the direction of the Franciscan Church dedicated to Saint Catherine.
At the entrance, he was welcomed by the Guardian of the Monastery of Bethlehem, Br. Artemio Vitores, who dressed him in the vestments of the solemnity before entering the Basilica. The Custos expressed his thanks to the community and to all those present, followed by the wishes for a Christmas of light in the name of Jesus. “Thank you for your presence, for the works of the Custody and the interest in the Living Stones, the Christians of Bethlehem,” the parish priest of St. Catherine, Fr. Rami Asakrieh, exclaimed from the pulpit at the beginning of the celebration. “Despite the difficult political situation and the economic instability in which we find ourselves, this place bears witness to a different grace and the pilgrims who come here from all over the world for this day know it well.” The feast continued with the solemn celebration of the First Vespers of the Epiphany and the daily procession to the grotto of the Nativity in which all the friars, pilgrims and local faithful participated.
In the afternoon, Fr. Patton personally made his Christmas greetings to the religious communities of Bethlehem who collaborate with the Custody. The first were the Franciscan Minimal Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who collaborate with the Franciscans in kitchen services and in other activities. Immediately afterwards were the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament, who serve at the Milk Grotto for perpetual adoration, followed by the Franciscan Sisters of Mary and the Dominican nuns. Other meetings took place, including one with the Scouts of Bethlehem which was intense; one with Antonian Society and with the elderly who are housed in their facility and one with the Franciscan Sisters of St. Elizabeth at the Caritas Baby Hospital, a pediatric hospital in Palestine. The visit [then] moved to the Catholic Action office of the city and ended at the house of the sisters in Aida, an area surrounding Bethlehem and the Sisters of St. Joseph.
Two events were the highlights on January 6: the Holy Mass presided over by the Custos and the celebration of the Second Vespers. “The three Magi described by the Gospel are of different ethnicity, provenance and age,” commented Fr. Emad Rofael during the homily. “This means that all peoples and all ages have already gone to adore Jesus: we were all present because Jesus comes to the whole world as a Savior.” He thus concluded in his greeting, “Like the Three Wise Men, we too must never stop searching for Jesus, and once we find him we must return singing his wonders.”
The Vespers were a very important liturgical event. After the procession to the Grotto of the Nativity, as per tradition, Father Custos took [the statue of] the Baby Jesus that was laid there on Christmas Day. The second tradition linked to this day is the presence of three friars who represent the Magi. The Custodial Secretary, Fr. David Grenier, the guardian of the Monastery of Bethlehem, Fr. Artemio Vitores and Fr. Jad Sara, the Head of the Infirmary of St. Savior, who were dressed in red, green and gold, preceded the solemn procession of the friars by distributing incense and myrrh to the faithful.