The preparations for the Christmas celebrations are getting off to a start in the Holy Land. On Saturday 28th November 2020 in Bethlehem, where Jesus started his life, the solemn entrance of the Custos of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton and the Solemn Mass celebrated on the next day marked the beginning of the traditional liturgical celebrations of this period of Advent, which is a period also made particular due to the global pandemic which is affecting this land.
The day of Saturday 28th November started, as is tradition, with the Custos meeting a part of the community of the parish of St Saviour in the Hall of the Diwan of the Franciscan convent in the Old City. The first to speak was the parish priest, Fr. AmjadSabbara, who focused on the importance of the Christian roots of the local faithful and the importance of being Christians in this very particular place, as well as the difficult situation of the pandemic the world is in at the moment. Fr. Patton then spoke emphasizing the peculiarity of the presence of the pilgrims for the local community, who are not only an economic support but also a spiritual one: the opportunity of a window on to the Universal Church. “Today we want to symbolically take the light that comes from Bethlehem,” the Custos said, “to keep alive hope, the trust in the Celestial Father and the charity that makes us supportive and help one another. The virus will pass, what is important is that the solidarity between brothers and sisters in the community remains. May the Lord help us to look ahead and to always live with hope.”
As per the Status Quo, the second passage was greeting the small civil and religious representation from Beit Jalain front of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Elias, to then go to the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, going through the checkpoint of Rachel’s Tomb, exceptionally open on this day every year. Unlike previous years and due to the recent anti-COVID rules, the Custos then went down the central Star Street by car, escorted by a group of local scouts. When he arrived at the square in front of the Basilica, a fair number of representatives of the local community was there to introduce the Custosfor his solemn entrance into the Basilica of the Nativity. After greeting the civil authorities and the representatives of the other Christian denominations present at the Nativity, the Custos went through the door of humility, following the procession of the Franciscans who had preceded him.
The Custos was welcomed at St Catherine’s Church, property of the Franciscans and which is alongside the Basilica of the Nativity, by Fr. Enrique Segovia, Superior of the Franciscan convent of St Catherine. “The pandemic is like the night, there are some nights that are longer than others and some that are shorter, but the night always ends and the sun rises again,” said Fr. Patton. “And if our sun is the Lord Jesus Christ, we must not fear the night.”
A few hours after this brief celebration, the Custos presided the solemn First Vespers of the first Sunday of Advent. During Vespers, the traditional rite of the lucernarium took place, when the first candle of the crown of Advent is lit with a candle lit at the manger, Jesus’s birthplace.
Solemn Mass in Arabic was then celebrated on Sunday morning, again presided by Fr. Francesco Patton. “In the Gospel, God tells us that we have to be vigilant at all times, to remind us that we are called to live our Christian life with responsibility, hope and faith.”The homily in Arabic, pronounced by the parish priest Fr. Rami Asakriehwas centred on the term “vigil”: a waiting without the risk of falling asleep, but a waiting aimed at working for our salvation.
“The parish of Bethlehem continues to get ready for Christmas,” says Fr. Rami. “Because of the virus we are readier and more willing to look at the origin of salvation, and not at external ceremonies: we are trying to reach the depths of our faith, in this period it can be a good occasion, even though the festivities will be very limited due to the anti-Covid rules.”