Every year, the friars of the Custody organize a Franciscan march in summer. Two weeks before Christmas, they gathered youth in Bethlehem from all over the country so as to keep in touch during the year and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Here is what happened.
They came from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Jerusalem and from all over Galilee. “We came to worship Him” was the theme of this Advent gathering of Franciscan youth in preparation for the birth of Jesus Christ: Christmas.
The last time they had seen each other was for the Franciscan march that is organized every year in the summer. In the amphitheater of the Terra Santa School in Bethlehem, the first arrivals waited impatiently for the beginning of the day; some were already even dancing.
Once the bus from Galilee got there, everyone warmed up with a time of praise and dance. A meditation on the theme of the gathering was said by Br. Emad Maria, who has recently been put in charge of youth ministry for the Custody of the Holy Land and the Franciscan march.
“Today we came to worship Him from all over the Holy Land before Christmas,” began Br. Emad. “No matter the reason you came today ... I ask you today, before continuing your day with us, to shake your feet, leave everything outside, so that God’s grace may enter your heart.” “To adore Him”, he explained, “is not only to kneel before Him, but it is to accept God altogether in our daily lives, for Him to become the reason for our existence, to empty ourselves of all of our problems and to let ourselves be guided by His grace; to ask less and listen more. Knowing Jesus is good, but having a personal encounter with Him is better.”
The sunlight, filtered through the stained-glass windows of the Milk Grotto chapel, colored the place with a light shade of blue. Br. Emad celebrated mass there.
Upon their arrival arrival, the youth received a bracelet that was one of the following four colors: blue, yellow, green or orange. After lunch they had a mission. To bring the spirit and joy of Christmas to one of the following charity houses: the Bethlehem Crèche, the Incarnate Word, the Sisters of Charity, or the house of St. Anthony. In all four places, they sang, danced, played music (mainly tam tam) to the applause rhythmed by the elderly, children, and young people present. Yes, all were very good, but it was the group with the yellow bracelets, those who were with the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, who made the most noise with their tamtams and Christmas carols, a session of praise and intense joy that ended with a final song of praise in Arabic: “shukran lilah.”
“We organize the famous Franciscan march every year, which is a special encounter and an intense spiritual experience," Br. Emad explained. “Today we have come together so as to keep in touch with each other during the year; it is also an important time to prepare for Christmas. At this age, many young people are still seeking their way, the path of their lives. They are preoccupied by the small occupations of everyday life. To find one’s way, one must empty oneself of the matters of this world, be guided by Jesus and build a personal relationship based on love--a love that drives us to loving fear but not fear.”
“I wish to convey to young people that they are a part of the Church,” he stressed, “that we care for them, that they are important, that each of them is unique. We want to take care of each and every one regardless of their situation or where they are from. [Thus the importance of] passing on the value of Franciscan simplicity, experiencing special moments together as brothers and sisters of the same family; making them aware of God’s call, of vocations, and more simply to listen to questions and to be present for any request for spiritual guidance.
Jiryes Ghattas, 29, traveled all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. “I am here to prepare for the birth of Christ in me. I am preparing myself, first of all, for his coming for these two weeks, on Christmas and during the new year. Christ is the Truth, and if I do not make this effort to know Him, I can never know who I am and I will never be able to answer my calling as the Father's son.” Why make this preparation as a group? “It is true that the preparation is personal and somewhat individual, but this preparation in a group setting is important because Christ was born for everybody,” he said. “All of us here are looking for the same thing, but each one has a personal vocation and a unique relationship with Jesus.”
“I did not want to come this morning,” confided Lina Giacaman, 18, from Bethlehem, wearing a kéfié and a tau. “Yes, I have exams but at the last minute I changed my mind because I felt I had to be here; maybe He wanted me to come. We ask God so much and He gives us so much during the year... what are we going to give Him now during this feast that is His? Are we going to take the time to listen?”
“We went to visit the needy today,” she recalled. “God speaks to us through them as well; and we become more sensitive to daily graces through our contact with others. Being at the service of the needy is not something we should only do during the holidays. Following the visit today, I am thinking of giving a hand to these charity houses during the year. I like these gatherings very much,” she concluded. “God also loves that we gather to pray and He said so... It is very interesting; we share personal experiences, we pray and sing together, and God’s messages also come through our encounters with others!”
“Today I learned something important,” said Majd from Bethlehem, at the time of the collective exchange, “charity does not require pity but a simple moment of courage and a lot of joy!”
“Now, tell yourselves the following: ‘Jesus will be born for me, for me personally!’ said Br. Emad. Make this encounter something you can build upon and mature, before, during and after Christmas. Before the next time we meet, I wish you all a Merry Christmas!” Some gifts were distributed and a collective photograph was taken to mark this spiritual day that was rich in activities, sharing and joy.