BETHLEHEM, Palestine – Christmas this year is definitely different in the Holy Land, especially in Bethlehem. Since the start of the Advent season and amid the increases of COVID-19 cases in the country, Christmas festivities in the city were scaled down, last of which were the Christmas entrance and procession of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Midnight Mass at the Church of St. Catherine.
Every year on December 24th, Christians eagerly attend and participate in the Christmas celebrations which the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem leads in Bethlehem. The day starts with the receiving of the parishioners of Jerusalem at the Latin Patriarchate, the patriarch then leaves for Mar Elias Monastery and St. Rachel’s Tomb, where he is received and greeted by the parishioners of Beit Jala and Bethlehem. The patriarch then takes the route of Star Street, which according to tradition, is the route that Mary and Joseph took when they were looking for shelter and a place for the Mother of God to give birth in.
On this same route four years ago, and in a change of protocol, Archbishop Pizzaballa, then Apostolic Administrator, decided to exit his car and march with and among his flock. The cheering crowds approached and greeted him, shaking his hands, hugging and kissing him. Some handed him their babies to bless and others threw rice at him from the windows of their houses. All the way from Start Street to Manger Square, people were delighted to walk with their bishop, who would stop for a few seconds to talk to them.
This year as well, and despite the anticipated low turnout, due to the health situation and the poor weather, His Beatitude marched the streets of the old city of Bethlehem as the new Patriarch of Jerusalem, replacing handshakes with fist bumps, elbow taps and waves, in keeping with the health guidelines. The procession continued until Manger Square, where the patriarch was received by the Mayor of Bethlehem, the Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities and other public figures. The First Vespers then followed in St. Catherine’s Church and the procession to the Grotto of the Nativity was presided by His Beatitude.
The Christmas Midnight Mass took place later that night, where attendance was limited to the clergy and the religious communities as well as to official dignitaries such as the Consuls General of France, Italy, Spain, and Belgium.
COVID-19 stricken Christmas
These are certainly times of adversity for the people of the world. In Bethlehem, COVID-19 has created a painful reality and impoverished a lot of families. For 10 months since the spread of the virus in the Holy Land, the tourism sector in Palestine remains at a standstill. Thirty-two thousand people have not worked since March; hotel reservations have been canceled, souvenir shops had to close, and the holy sites are empty of pilgrims.
One may wonder how families would receive the Prince of Peace under these circumstances. “Everyone feels darkened, tired, exhausted, oppressed for too long under the heavy burden of this pandemic,” says His Beatitude in his Christmas homily. “But we do not want, and we cannot even forget that with the birth of Christ, God Himself entered the world, directing its path towards a future of joy and peace. Amid our fears, we want to grasp the hand that Christ offers us for a renewed journey of trust, hope, and love.”
This Christmas, one can also contemplate and find solace in the journey that Mary and Joseph had to take at the time of Christ’s birth. Traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem while Mary was pregnant was exhausting. There is also the situation in which they could not find a room for themselves in the inn. Eventually, Mary had to give birth to Jesus and lay him in a manger. Despite what they lived through, and the fact that they did not have much at that time, they had each other, and they had Jesus. And just like their faith in God and having a sense of purpose in life helped them in difficult times, it can also help us during this pandemic.
By: Saher Kawas
Source: Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem