The delegations of the Oriental Christian Churches of Jerusalem visited the Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton, and the friars of the Custody for the traditional exchange of Christmas greetings, two days after Christmas. Most of the Orthodox communities, which follow the Julian calendar, will celebrate Christmas on Saturday 6 January.
Christmas from Bethlehem to Greccio
The different delegations were welcomed one after the other in the capitular hall of St Saviour’s convent. They were fraternal meetings between the different communities, expressed both through official speeches and through songs and more informal shared moments. “In addition to the protocol, there is much more in these meetings,” the Custos emphasized. “The real reason for this habit is the desire to share the mysteries we believe in and which we celebrate and to feel that we are brothers who are loved and saved by the same Celestial Father and his one and only son. He is the real source of our joy, of our peace and of our fraternal communion. And this is why we are celebrating despite the current situation of war.”
The topics for common reflection include Christmas in wartime, the signs of which are clear not only in the sobriety of the celebrations – recalled by all the parties as a sign of solidarity with those who are suffering in Gaza, in Israel and Palestine – but in the preoccupations and tensions which two and a half months after the breakout of the conflict are emerging in the heart of the Christian community itself. At the same time, the heads of the Christian Churches underlined how the celebration of Christmas can be a light in the middle of the darkness, a light that “cannot be put out.” Fr. Patton also recalled that it is the eighth centenary of the “Christmas of Greccio” of St Francis of Assisi, an important appointment for the Franciscan Order and for all the faithful who can receive a special indulgence granted by Pope Francis.
United for the Christian presence in the Holy Land
As tradition has it, the first to be received were the Greek Orthodox, with the delegation led by the Patriarch Theophilos III. The Custos and the Patriarch expressed solidarity for the victims of the war in Gaza, in the church of St Porphyrius and in the Latin parish of the Holy Family. Both raised their voice to say “yes” to peace and dialogue and “no” to war, to every war, recalling Pope Francis’s words in his Christmas “Urbi et Orbi”. The bond with the Greek Orthodox Church is “becoming stronger every year” said the Custos, also mentioning the works at the Holy Sepulchre as common ground for unity and the commitment to defend the Christian presence in the Holy Land.
This topic was also at the centre of the dialogue with the Armenian Orthodox delegation, received immediately after the Greek Orthodox one. Fr. Patton also wanted to express the closeness and the solidarity of the Custody to the brothers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, in saving property rights, not only in Jerusalem, but in the whole of the Holy Land.
Mid-morning, the friars of the Custody received the delegation of the Coptic and of the Syrian Churches, then, following tradition, they went to the seat of the Melkite (or Greek Catholic Church, where they were received by the vicar, archbishop Yasser al-Ayyash. “May the Lord give us the grace to walk in his paths, to serve his Church, this Holy Land and its people, according to the responsibilities that we have been entrusted with,” the Custos said to his Catholic brothers of the Oriental rite.
The greetings of the Patriarch
In the afternoon, the Custos and the Franciscan community of St Saviour received a group of lecturers and students from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the delegation of the Latin Patriarch, led by Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa. This meeting between sons of St Francis – the Patriarch himself is a Franciscan – was in a relaxed atmosphere. The Cardinal’s words focused on the Child of Bethlehem, who, he said, “ is the origin of our faith” and “the point of reference” of Christian life. The Custos’s reflection focused on the “Christmas of Greccio”, an event that echoed in the words of the writings of St Francis and in those of Thomas of Celano, his first biographer. “We ask for our families and communities and for ourselves, that the celebration of Christmas leads us to follow and imitate the humility of God,” is the Custos’s Christmas wish. And we ask Jesus that at Christmas we worship as the Prince of Peace, beings peace again and always to the land where he was born and which today is, unfortunately, still horribly full of bloodshed.
After the exchange of greetings, the Patriarch, according to tradition, visited the elderly friars in the infirmary of the Custody, to take his Christmas greetings to them as well.