Joy of Christmas not waning in Bethlehem

The joy of the Nativity did not really wane in Bethlehem. On January 5 and 6, the Latin Church celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord. As every year, the Franciscans went to Bethlehem to follow the steps of the “eastern” Magi as is recalled by the Gospel of the feast.

The Epiphany (which means “manifestation”) commemorates the episode of the Adoration of the Magi who bring to the manger the incense, gold and myrrh to the child-Jesus. The local liturgical tradition surrounds this festival with a particular solemnity.

If traditionally the Custos receives first the vows of the Latin community of Jerusalem, it was more original to hear the dialogue that took place between the Custos and the community. The words of the Custos had nothing formal. Exchanging news, he triggered back a number of questions revealing the real concerns of the community.

It did not appear to be more necessary to take the road to Bethlehem to follow the Lord’s trail. In Mar Elias, a former municipal boundary of Bethlehem, the Israeli police joined solemnly the procession in order to accompany the Custos to the foot of the separation wall.

As in the first Sunday of Advent, the Custos made his entrance to the city, hosted by the Palestinian authorities at the manger square. The afternoon of January the 5th was mainly devoted to liturgical prayer, through Vespers and Epiphany Vigils, followed by the Custos accompanied by a priest in an always warm round of religious communities working in conjunction with the Custody or the Franciscan spirituality.

The following day, the day itself of the Solemnity of the Epiphany began with a Mass celebrated by the Custos. Many local Christians made the trip. “For us it is easier today,” says a faithful. “We did not come on Christmas Eve because there were too many people, too many tourists. But today we are happy to be here. We just pray for peace, for the Child Jesus to gives us His peace.” Another group of pilgrims comes from Italy. “It is not a novelty. We have been coming here every year for a long time. It’s a real ritual for us.”

As required by the status quo, the four consuls of the so called “Latin Nations” (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium) attended the Mass. After the homily given by the parish priest and according to an ancient custom, the deacon announced the moveable feasts of the liturgical coming year (Ash Wednesday, Easter, Assumption, Pentecost and First Advent Sunday).

After a festive meal at Casa Nova (reception house for pilgrims), the friars sang the second Vespers of Epiphany. During this office, three priests carried in procession gold (a flower offered by Paul VI), frankincense and myrrh, to signify the gifts of the Magi.

At the end of the service, the Franciscans and the present faithful imitated the Magi on their way to the manger to worship Child Jesus. While a deacon sang the Gospel of the Epiphany, the Custos left at the foot of the manger the three gifts of the Magi.

The celebration ended with a procession in the cloister. Pilgrims and Franciscans went three rounds in procession accompanied by the joyful singing of the choir. The Custos carried the figure of the Child Jesus, preceded by two priests who were distributing myrrh and incense to the faithful.

If Latin were present in large numbers during this beautiful day, they were however not the only Christians to come to engage in prayer before the crib. For Orthodox who follow the Julian calendar, the feast of Nativity falls each year on January the 7th. Thus, the Latin Epiphany falls at the same time of the first vespers of the Orthodox Nativity. Three Orthodox Churches (Greek, Syriac and Coptic) prayed therefore together the Vespers in the Basilica of Bethlehem with a joyful cacophony.

For a Franciscan friar, the message is clear: “Just as the three Wise Men traditionally come from different continents, the Christian churches celebrate in their diversity the unity of the Son of God who became incarnate. We are all invited to share the same faith and to worship the same Lord. And in a certain way the Greek Church represents Europe, the Syriac Asia and the Coptic Africa. The symbolism of the Magi is respected.”

A Latin Christian coming from Jerusalem says she “hopes that one day we will celebrate Christmas together.” This difference in the calendars does not prevent us to live the same mystery: “Nativity is a new birth in Christ. We are adopted by Christ, and every year is a new beginning.”

A new beginning must be (according to the wishes of the Custos to the Latin community in Bethlehem) accompanied by hope and confidence. “We must remain. This is the only possible future. There will be always difficulties. But regardless the future, the Franciscans will remain to live the Christian presence in the Holy Land.”

Nicolas Kimmel