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Epiphany: becoming the star that leads to Jesus

On Friday, January 5, in the place of the Nativity, the tunics and surplices of the Franciscans took the show. It has been two days since the news outlets had announced it: the storm was coming. Based on the nationality of the friars, the strong wind full of humidity was either seen as an invigorating breeze or as an icy hurricane. But everyone still expected that the Custos of the Holy Land, on this day of his solemn entry into the city of the Nativity, would be on time to open the festivities of the Lord’s Epiphany.

Fr. Francesco Patton’s car arrived on time preceded by a procession of vehicles. They respected the traditional stops: Mar Elias with the mayor of Beit Jala and Rachel’s Tomb with the pastor of Beit Sahour. But there was no chance that they would venture out onto Star Street by foot, like the Apostolic Administrator did two weeks earlier for Christmas. It finally rained abundantly! This time, unlike with the Custos’ solemn entry and with the feast of St. Catherine, for which many people had gathered, this time the rain dissuaded many from attending. Even the scouts had to cancel their parade and had to play their festive tunes under the vaults of the cloister. It was seven degrees in Bethlehem but there was warmth in people’s hearts, especially when a welcome ray of sun led the procession to enter the church in a leisurely way.

In the cloister, the scouts played their instruments while the Te Deum resounded in the church. Fr. Artemio Vitores, guardian of the Bethlehem fraternity, welcomed the Custos and presided over the prayer. Before the solemn blessing, the Custos said a few words to the community present. “The feast of the Epiphany reminds us that the whole world comes to Bethlehem. Let us adore the Child Jesus as well. Let us give him the best gifts we have starting with the gift of our lives. And in front of baby Jesus in the manger, let us intensely pray and on our knees for peace.”

After a fraternal lunch, the friars continued the prayer by singing First Vespers and by doing the Office of Readings at the grotto, presided over by Fr. Artemio. As for the Custos, as per tradition, he went to visit the religious communities, the services and associations related to parish life and to the Custody.

On Saturday, February 6, a pontifical mass was at the heart of the Eucharistic celebration. And while the Franciscans and many faithful were gathered at St. Catherine’s Church, in the basilica of the Nativity, there were solemn entrances being made by the Eastern churches, which open their Christmas festivities according to the Julian calendar. The Syriac and Coptic bishops came in the morning, thus preceding the Greek Orthodox patriarch in the early afternoon. Although it was raining, they were grateful for having missed the pouring rain that came down yesterday afternoon both in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. At the beginning of the mass, the Custos of the Holy Land greeted the civil and military authorities that were present, along with the representatives of the four Latin nations: Italy, Spain, France and Belgium. “The feast of the Epiphany,” he said, “is an invitation to, in turn, become the star that leads others to Jesus.”

Concelebrating with him, in addition to the numerous presbyterium, were Mons. Francesco Marini, Bishop of Nola (Italy) who came specially for the occasion, the vicar Custodial, Fr. Dobromir Jazstal, the father Guardian, and the pastor, Fr. Rami Asakrieh who said the homily. At the offertory, some pilgrims from St. Anastasia near Naples (Italy) took part in the procession of offerings. About 20 pilgrims from their group were dressed up as magi, shepherds and shepherdesses. It almost seemed as if the figures in the creche had come to life. At the end of the mass, people took out their smartphones for some great selfie opportunities.

But the moment that the faithful of Bethlehem were waiting for with the most anticipation was the Second Vespers for the feast, when after praying the psalms, the Franciscans led the congregation to the creche and the Custos came back carrying in his arms a statue of the baby Jesus sitting on a throne. The expression of their simple and sincere faith was manifested when the faithful kissed the Child, who had come to reign in their hearts. This is a prayer than we can say for everyone, including our Orthodox brothers and sisters on this beautiful Christmas night.

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