Christmas is one of the central celebrations of life in the Holy Land and one of the most important events for Christians. December 25th is the date for the Latins (the Catholic Church), and on this occasion the eyes and hearts of the faithful of the whole world are aimed at the small city of Bethlehem, in Judea.
At 1:30 p.m., as per tradition, the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate, His Excellency Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, solemnly entered Bethlehem, marking the beginning of the Christmas season in the Holy Land. Accompanied by over 30 groups of Catholic scouts, the Archbishop was welcomed, in the area located in front of the Basilica, by the Franciscan friars of St. Catherine’s Monastery and by religious and political representatives. After the greeting by the parish priest, the celebration of the Christmas First Vespers took place and they were presided over by the Apostolic Administrator inside the Church dedicated to St. Catherine, followed by the daily procession of the Franciscans to the Grotto of the Nativity and to the Grotto of St. Joseph, in which those present and seminarians of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem participated.
While the square of the Basilica of the Nativity began to fill with local believers and pilgrims who came from all over the world, inside the church the preparations for the evening celebration were underway. Over 1400 faithful attended the celebration. “This year the requests have been coming in since March,” said Br. Tomasz Dubiel, head of the Christian Information Center, who is in charge of managing accessibility for the celebration. “Most of the participants come from the United States, Italy and France: every year we allocate a certain percentage of tickets per country of origin,” he continued. “Tonight there are more than 50 nationalities represented here,” not including those present outside of the Basilica, who were both Christians and Muslims. For the occasion, the State of Israel granted 625 permits to Christians residing within the Gaza territory.
Advent ended with the Office of Readings of the Solemnity of Christmas; emotions and joy were palpable inside the Basilica and grew more and more leading up to midnight. In the presence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as representatives of the Palestinian Authority and ambassadors from various countries around the world, the Archbishop said his homily. “Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem,” Mons. Pizzaballa said, “is not only a historical-geographical indication, but a divine choice”: this is one of the ways in which God shows love for the cities of men, [in which he demonstrates] his interest and deep care. “The birth of the Lord in our cities,” he said, “is intended to ignite within us a sort of ‘political passion,’ arousing [in us] the responsibility of caring for the city and the land we inhabit, not to possess it or occupy it, but to transform it from a simple urban area to the service of private and personal interests, as a place of experience of communion and peace, of relationship and sharing.”
With songs and readings, the traditional Christmas celebration ended to make way for the procession of the religious and the faithful to the Grotto of the Nativity where, following the Status Quo, the Child Jesus was placed in memory and in the announcement of the day when God gave mankind His Son, Emmanuel, God-with-us.