The morning of Christmas Eve in the Holy Land always has the same sound: that of the Scouts’ drums parading through the cities. This year again, Jerusalem and Bethlehem woke up among the music of dozens of groups, waiting for the beginning of the celebrations for one of the most important religious events.
So as to respect the Christmas Eve traditions, the first event for local Christians was at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem with the Apostolic Administrator Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa. During the meeting the pastor of the Church of St. Savior, Fr. Nerwan Al-Bana, and the head of the Latin community in Jerusalem, (the Moukhtar) Yacoub Amer, also spoke. Then, the Apostolic Administrator processed to Bethlehem, following a path that is repeated every year. The first stop took place outside the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Elias, where he met the pastor and the mayor of Beit Jala. In front of Rachel’s Tomb, where they are allowed to stop only twice a year, the Administrator exchanged Christmas wishes with the pastor of the Church of St. Catherine in Bethlehem, Fr. Rami, and the mayor of Beit Sahour. Mons. Pierbattista Pizzaballa then made his solemn entrance into Bethlehem at Manger Square, preceded by dozens of groups of Scouts from different places and welcomed by locals.
The cold and the strong wind did not discourage people from participating in this important moment for Bethlehem, which always brings together the whole city and not just Christians.
Several civil authorities, such as the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, and the chief of police, welcomed Mons. Pizzaballa to the square. In front of the Church of the Nativity, however, Fr. Artemio Vitores, guardian of the Franciscan fraternity of Bethlehem, together with representatives of the Greek Orthodox and Armenian communities, awaited Pizzaballa, as established by the Status Quo, as co-owners of the holy place. After First Vespers, at 4 p.m., the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land led the procession to the grotto of the Nativity.
Experiencing the feast of the birth of the Child Jesus in the very place where it took place does not leave people feeling indifferent. For this reason, the emotion of the locals, of the many pilgrims and tourists, who came specifically for Christmas, could be felt in the air in the festively illuminated square. “We are not Christians, but we came from Hebron to feel a bit of this Christmas atmosphere,” said a group of youngsters drinking a coffee in the square. Hannin and John, a couple from Bethlehem, love Christmas: “It is a time when we see all of our Palestinian culture.”
“We came from Nazareth to celebrate [Christmas] in Bethlehem,” said another couple. “Christmas is everything.” Salomon, an Ethiopian Christian from Jerusalem, was also in the square taking pictures of the nativity scene: “I celebrate Ethiopian Christmas, but I like to participate in the Latin feast as well. It is all so joyful.”
Before the midnight mass, the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, members of the Latin Patriarchate with the Apostolic Administrator and the Palestinian civil authorities gathered for Christmas Eve dinner. The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, Rami Hamdallah, and his delegation, were also present. Special guests included the acclaimed winner of the last season of Arab Idol, Yacoub Shaheen, who performed a song at the end of the evening.
Just a few steps from there, the midnight mass was celebrated at the Church of St. Catherine. Gloria in excelsis Deo resonated in a packed and festive church, which was also attended by the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
In his homily, Pizzaballa spoke about recognizing the value of the Child Jesus, who was perhaps considered by some as “insignificant,” but who is in reality an “admirable Counselor,” “mighty God,” “Father forever,” “Prince of Peace.” The Apostolic Administrator once again made a plea to the political class, as also stressed during his Christmas message, and told them to “have courage, not to fear, to be daring and to take risks; not to fear solitude, not to give up on their own vision.” Everyone was then invited to invert logic and behavior “from the big to the small, from strength to weakness, from power to the gift, because that is how God acts,” affirmed Pizzaballa.
In closing, the Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem offered words of encouragement to his faithful: “Have courage, Church of the Holy Land! You can do it, brothers and sisters! We can continue to live and stay here, in weakness and poverty, because these are God’s paths when He wants to come into the world and bless humanity.” He sent a similar message to politicians: “Courage also to you, powerful of the world: you can dare undertaking the adventure of peace and brotherhood,” said Pizzaballa. “The the door of humility that leads into the Basilica of Christmas is also the entrance into true greatness.”