BETHLEHEM – Despite the absence of pilgrims during the end of the year due to health restrictions, a spirit of celebration and joy have illuminated this Christmas of 2021, marked by the presence of many local Christians who came to attend the celebrations.
It all started with the scouts’ parade. Dressed in their best uniforms, they made the streets of Bethlehem vibrate with their musical instruments: trumpets, drums, clarinets… Some groups even had majorettes, who distinguished themselves by twirling their batons. Then, around 12:30 pm, his Beatitude Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem entered the city and walked down Star Street under the acclamations and showers of confetti.
St. Catherine then echoed with the songs of vespers and prayers said during the first procession to the Grotto of the Nativity. The celebrations continued at 11:30 pm, with the beginning of the midnight Mass… although people began to fill the church as soon as the doors opened, more than two hours before! And although the pilgrims are missing, there still won’t be enough seats for everyone.
At midnight, the bells ring throughout the church. Christ is born! Unveiled to the faithful, He is placed in the manger at the foot of the altar. Then follows the homily: before the entire assembly, which included the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and his delegation, his Beatitude Pizzaballa addresses his message of peace and hope to the Christians of the Holy Land. “I met people who know how to be active and constructive and who, although aware of the enormous difficulties in which they live, never cease to believe that something beautiful can be done for themselves and for others, without cultivating feelings of hatred and rancor. I am convinced that these are the ones who concretely build the Kingdom of God in our midst and that every day, not only today, they live the true spirit of Christmas: making space within themselves for the true Source of life and being themselves full of that life.”
The celebration then continues with many emotional moments, such as the prayer in several languages and the consecration. After the communion, the priests, bishops, and other celebrants go down once more to the Grotto of the Nativity with Patriarch Pizzaballa to place Jesus, first on the star where Mary gave birth, then where the manger was, according to tradition. The procession marks the end of the Holy Mass; soon the church empties and fills again with people willing to attend the following celebrations. For those who wish, short Masses are celebrated in the Grotto until very late at night.
And it’s not over yet. The next day, his Beatitude celebrated the Holy Mass of December 25ths. Another great opportunity to experience the spirit of Christmas for the Christians who are here… Especially since the festivities will continue until January 7th and 18th, as Orthodox and Armenian Christians celebrate the birth of Christ later in the year. Christmas is far from being over!