Epiphany and ecumenism in Bethlehem

The feast of the Epiphany began on Tuesday, January 5, at St. Savior’s Monastery in Jerusalem. The Custos of the Holy Land, Br. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, welcomed parishioners from the Holy City into the diwan—the reception room where churches had come to share their holiday greetings a few days earlier. Children, parents and grandparents had come, accompanied by their parish priest, Br. Feras Hejazin, so as to share their wishes with each other for the 2016 New Year. The mukhtar, the spokesperson for the Latin community, was represented by his son. “We thank you for your work over these last twelve years, and we are very grateful,” they said to Br. Pierbattista, whose term will come to an end in a few months.

The friars then processed to Bethlehem. They were welcomed at the monastery in Mar Elias by the pastor of Beit Jala, and later at Rachel’s tomb by the pastor of Bethlehem, as per tradition. Accompanied by Israeli mounted police, up to the checkpoint, they then crossed three doors in the separation wall between Israel and Palestine, so as to respect the route that is prescribed by the Status Quo. The Custos then made his solemn entry onto Manger Square. Like on the first Sunday of Advent, he was greeted by a band of Boy Scouts, city authorities, as well as the Orthodox and Armenian representatives from the Basilica of the Nativity.

At the conclusion of the first pontifical vespers, which were presided over by the Custos, he slipped away to visit the communities in Bethlehem. The afternoon continued at St. Catherine’s Church with the Office of Readings. The congregation was small in number, made up of regulars and a few pilgrims. “We are traveling for a week in the Holy Land and we are very pleased to be able to attend these services,” explained a couple of Polish pilgrims excitedly.

The Mass on January 6, celebrated in Arabic, was presided over by the Father Custos. The church was packed with parishioners and religious. “I really love this feast and procession!” explained a Franciscan who came from another monastery. In his homily, the pastor of the parish, Br. Nerwan Al-Banna reminded everyone of the significance of the feast of the Epiphany, which means “manifestation of God.” It consists of four events: the Nativity of Christ, by which God becomes flesh, the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus, the baptism by John the Baptist, which marks the beginning of Christ’s public life, and finally the Wedding at Cana, in which he manifests his divine power by changing water into wine. From this moment on, the disciples believed in Him.

Pontifical vespers were followed by a procession to the Grotto of the Nativity and later to the cloister at St. Catherine’s Church. Three Franciscans wore gold (in the form of a rose that had been given to them by Pope Paul VI during his visit to the Holy Land), frankincense and myrrh. These three gifts respectively symbolize [Christ’s] royalty, divinity and the sacrifice of His Passion. At the heart of the procession, the Custos carried a statue of the Infant Jesus sitting on his throne, which the faithful kissed. Myrrh and frankincense were distributed to them while the choir boisterously sang Puer natus in Bethlehem. The joy was just as palpable among the friars, as it was among the parishioners: the joy of being together and the joy of the Epiphany. The lyrics “God, we THANK you,” reverberated throughout.

The songs by Latin Catholics were not the only ones that resonated in the Church of the Nativity that day. The Greek Orthodox, the Syrians and the Copts also said their vespers there as well, before their celebration of Christmas, which for them falls on January 7, according to the Julian calendar. In the late afternoon, the Ethiopians gathered at Manger Square, too. It is Christmas every day in Bethlehem!


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