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SOLEMNITY OF THE EPIPHANY IN BETHLEHEM

Date: 06.01.2005
Source: Custody of the Holy Land




Bethlehem, 6th January 2005.

From midnight till 9 a.m. there were successive celebrations of the Mass in various languages on the altar of the Magi in the Nativity Grotto. The only breaks in the successive celebrations were the short moments in which the various communities officiating the Nativity Basilica exercised their right to incense the Grotto. In the place of the Crib one could see the statue of the Child Jesus seated on a throne, blessing with his right hand and holding the orb with his left hand. The statue remained in the manger until the evening procession. The sacristans and Franciscan students of Jerusalem kept watch in the Grotto and gave liturgical service during the celebration of Masses. It rained heavily all during the night, but the morning was brighter and only a few clouds were adorning the horizon. At 10 a.m. the Father Custos presided over the Solemn Mass in the church of Saint Catherine. It was truly a Mass for the local people. The church was filled with the local inhabitants of Bethlehem, as well as with religious and some groups of pilgrims. The Mass was celebrated in Arabic and Latin. The Father Custos, who is an expert in the Hebrew language, showed a unique appreciation which drew the sympathy of the Arab populaton when he read out with extreme care and ability the texts in the Arabic language. The parish priest of Bethlehem, Father Amjad Sabbara, delivered the homily. The singing was led by the choir of the Holy Land Custody and the Franciscans of the seminary of Jerusalem. The organ was played by the professor of music of the Custody Father Armando Pierucci, who concluded the Mass playing the trumpets and bells in the organ and filling all the hearts of those who participated with joy. The Honorary Consuls and the local authorities were also present during the Mass.




At the end of the Mass the Orthodox Communities waited in the piazza in front of the Basilica for the arrival of their respective authorities for the beginning of the Orthodox Christmas celebrations. The most solemn entry was that of the Greek Patriarch Ireneos I, who arrived some time later than 11.30 a.m. in a sunny and bright day. The Honorary Consuls, as is the custom during this day, were invited to lunch with the friars at 12.30 p.m. After lunch there was free time until 4 p.m., when Vespers were sung. During the day there were persons moving about freely in Bethlehem, which gave the impression of being a town full of inhabitants. In the Basilica there were the celebrations of the Greeks, Syrians, Copts and Armenians. Every community followed an established programme. The Abyssinian community came from their tiny chapel near the Milk Grotto, and proceeded with African songs to the Nativity square, entertaining all those present with their songs, rhythm and drums.
At 4 p.m. the Guardian of the local Franciscan community, Father Justo, presided over Vespers, and immediately after the Father Custos presided over the solemn Procession. The church was full to capacity for the occasion. This was the most popular moment of the celebrations.




The Father Custos held in his hand the golden rose which Pope Paul VI had offered to the Child Jesus on the Epiphany, 6th January 1964, on the occasion of his pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Bethlehem. This year marked the 41st anniversary of that memorable occasion. Pope Paul VI had celebrated Mass on the altar of the Magi. The chronicle of the friary for that day says: “The Pope, like the three Magi, has brought to Bethlehem gold (the golden rose), incense and myhrr” [ACTS 9 (1964) 67]. Another symbol which was carried during the procession was a golden olive branch, which the same Paul VI had placed on the Sepulchre of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The symbol was carried by Father Stéfane Milovitch, the Secretary of the Holy Land Custody. It had been given as a gift by the sick people of Rome with the aim of praying for peace for the Holy Land and for the entire world. The procession went down to the Nativity Grotto, where the deacon placed the rose and the olive branch on the Star. The Father Custos then incensed the Star and the symbols placed upon it. After the incensation the Custos handed over the rose to the Guardian and the olive branch to the Secretary. Then the Custos proceeded to incense the Child Jesus enthroned in the Crib, as well as the altar of the Magi. The deacon sang the Gospel account of the visit of the Magi according to Saint Matthew (2,1-12): “We have seen his star in the east and we have come to adore him ... Upon seeing the star they were filled with an intense joy. They entered the house and found the child and his mother, and knelt before him and adored him. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gold, incense and myhrr”. After the Gospel account the friars sang the hymn “O sola magnarum urbium major Bethlem”, followed by the antiphon “Et apertis thesauris suis” and the corresponding prayer. Then the Father Custos descended into the chapel of the crib and incensed the Child Jesus of the Epiphany. Then he carried the statue and the procession proceeded with the singing of the “Te Deum”. It went up to the church of Saint Catherine and then went round the cloister of Saint Jerome two times. Usually the procession would go round the cloister three times. This procession with the Child Jesus is a very moving moment for the local population, for both elderly people as well as for young people and children. The Christians are filled with joy like the Magi because everybody can feel a strong love towards the Child Jesus. This is what one felt during the singing of the “Gloria in excelsis”, which was repeated unceasingly. The procession finally entered the church of Saint Catherine and after the ritual prayers the Custos blessed the friars and all the congregation with the image of the Child Jesus.


With this gesture the Christmas celebrations of the Catholic community ended and the celebrations of the Orthodox brethren began. In this way Bethlehem remains very much alive, and we hope that the numerous pilgrims who flocked to the celebrations will continue giving life to this town in which the world’s salvation was born. In this way we celebrated Christmas also this year: to the glory of Christ who was laid in the crib of Bethlehem and who was also laid to rest in the place of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. Amen.


Enrique Bermejo Cabrera ofm


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