Advent begins in the Holy Land, marked by moments and traditions that are repeated every year. December 2 and 3 were days of celebrations for the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land.
FROM JERUSALEM TO BETHLEHEM. To begin celebrating Advent, the Custos made his solemn entry into Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. Before leaving Jerusalem, he always meets with the parishioners St. Savior’s Church. So, as per tradition, on Saturday, December 2, in the hall at St. Savior’s, the faithful of the parish were welcomed by Fr. Francesco Patton during his second year as Custos. Also present was Moukhtar Yacoub Amer, who is the head of the Latin community of Jerusalem. Fr. Nerwan Al-Bana, the pastor of St. Savior, took the floor to speak about Advent as “a time of joyful hope.” Fr. Patton, on the other hand, wished to recall some of the moments that he spent with the parish: from Christmas in Bethlehem to Holy Week and to the day of the washing of the children’s feet for First Communion. “We are at the service of this community,” said the Custos. “And as Franciscans of the Holy Land, we need are in need of the welcome, the benevolence and the understanding of the Christians of the local community.”
THE SOLEMN ENTRY INTO BETHLEHEM. Escorted by police, the car that the Custos of the Holy Land, the Vicar, Fr. Dobromir Jazstal and the Secretary of the Holy Land, Br. David Grenier, were riding in, left the monastery. Before the traditional solemn entry into Bethlehem, which takes place three times a year (for the first Sunday of Advent, Christmas and the Epiphany), a stop was made at the monastery in Mar Elias. There, Fr. Patton greeted the mayor and the parish priest in Beit Jala. To enter Bethlehem, the procession passed through the checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb, which is usually closed and only opened three times a year on the occasion of the solemn entry.
Once they arrived in the city where Jesus was born, the crowds on the street welcomed the Custos upon his entry on foot to Manger Square. Going before him, several groups of scouts played the bagpipes, including a troop from Nazareth, the Latin scouts of St. Savior’s and the Salesian scouts. Also present at the Church of St. Catherine of the Nativity, were Br. Artemio Vitores, guardian of the fraternity of Bethlehem, Mons. Marcuzzo, the patriarchal vicar for Jerusalem and Palestine, as well as the newly appointed mayor of Bethlehem and other civil and religious authorities.
After lunch, the First Vesper of the Advent season were celebrated, followed by the Office of Readings with the procession in the grotto. As a symbol of the beginning of Advent, a candle was lit in the grotto and brought to the Church of St. Catherine. When there are four candles, one for each week, it will be Christmas.
THE LIGHTING OF THE TREE. On the same day in the afternoon, Manger Square in Bethlehem was filled with people from many different places. The lighting of the Christmas tree, which took place that afternoon, is an event that attracts people from far and wide. On the stage in the square, speeches by political and religious authorities were made, followed by a performance by beloved singer and Arab Idol winner, Yacoub Shaheen. Before the lighting, the Custos of the Holy Land blessed the tree and the gifts. “Talata, wahad, tnin!” (“Three, two, one!”) the crowd shouted during the countdown. Then, the tree lit up among the joy of those present and their shouts of excitement, while fireworks lit the dark sky.
Anthony owns a shop near Manger Square. “Christmas and moments like today are very important to us,” explained the young man. The lighting of the tree brought many locals, but also pilgrims and tourists from afar, like pilgrim from California who said enthusiastically, “Here you really feel the Christmas spirit. When the bus entered the city, I saw all of the lights in the streets and I felt a lot of joy.”
“Nowhere in the world can you experience Christmas like you do in the Holy Land,” said two youth, who drove from their small town in Palestine to Bethlehem for the event. Hala, coming from Lidda in Israel, comes to the tree lighting ceremony every year: “This place smells of Christendom, because Jesus was born here.”
THE MASS AT ST. CATHERINE’S. The next morning, Bethlehem was also where the celebration of the first Sunday of Advent and the feast of St. Catherine took place. In the presence of parishioners and the Bethlehem brotherhood, the Custos, Fr. Patton, presided over the mass. Fr. Rami, pastor of the St. Catherine’s, spoke about the two reasons for celebration in his homily. “The time leading up to Christmas can be experienced in different ways,” he said. “With anxiety, with sadness, with fear or with joy. Like children waiting for gifts from their parents, we must wait with hope.” Our waiting should be modeled after the example of St. Catherine, who knew how to be firm in the faith and how to give her witness.
At the end of the celebration, as a gift of gratitude, the Custos of the Holy Land wished to give the medal celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land to the mayor of Bethlehem, Anton Salman, and to the local parish priest, Fr. Rami Asakrieh.