On December 2, 2023 like every evening before Advent, the city where Jesus was born welcomed Custos of the Holy Land Fr. Francesco Patton, and the Franciscan friars for their annual procession into the city of Bethlehem.
This year, however, due to the ongoing conflict, the solemnity of the event has taken on a more sober tone, in line with the directives of the patriarchs and heads of the churches in Jerusalem, to “forego any unnecessarily festive activities” and “focus more on the spiritual meaning of Christmas.”
The procession of scouts — usually consisting of several hundred men, women, and children from all over Palestine who process in with the custos — was reduced to a small group, the music of drums and bagpipes gave way to a religious silence, and the flag-throwers lowered their flags. Even the streets and Manger Square, typically crowded with local believers and pilgrims, were empty. The only note of joy came from the children of Terra Sancta College in Bethlehem, which is under the custody of the Holy Land, who welcomed the small procession with cheers and applause.
Earlier that Saturday morning, a procession of vehicles with the custos of the Holy Land left Jerusalem and before entering Bethlehem made a stop at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Elias (Mar Elias), built in the sixth century at the site where the prophet Elijah is said to have taken refuge in his flight.
This piece of land still belongs today to the Palestinian municipality of Beit Jala and, until the Six-Day War in 1967, was located on the so-called Green Line, which marked the border between Israel and Palestine and served as the entry point from Jerusalem into the Palestinian territories.
For the first time, the civil and religious authorities of Beit Jala were not present to greet the custos, signaling a protest against the war and an expression of solidarity with the people of Gaza. Instead, the custos briefly greeted the military personnel of the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, including some Christians.
The procession of vehicles entered Bethlehem through a gateway that was opened for the occasion and then passed through an entrance in the separation wall at the location of the Tomb of Rachel. Here, the Jews venerate the burial place of the matriarch of the Jewish people. This is a small strip of land inside Bethlehem, under Israeli control, completely surrounded by the wall.
The Christian churches of the Holy Land maintain the right to pass through this route during the solemn entrances to Bethlehem by the custos of the Holy Land and the Latin, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian patriarchs.
In an interview the evening before with a few media outlets, including CNA, the custos of the Holy Land emphasized the significance of this passage.
“For me, it is the most meaningful gesture, even more so than when everything proceeds smoothly and with the utmost solemnity. It means continuing to affirm that even a wall can be crossed. It is a sign that sooner or later, there will be no more walls, and in a context like the one we are experiencing, marked by conflict and confrontation between the two populations, it takes on an even greater significance,” he said.
The custos and the Franciscan friars were welcomed by the scouts at the beginning of Star Street, winding through the heart of Bethlehem — the route traditionally believed to have been taken by the Magi. The custos then walked the short distance to Manger Square, where he was greeted by local authorities — the mayor, the governor, the chief of police, and the military commander.
At the entrance of the Basilica of the Nativity, the custos was then welcomed by Greek Orthodox and Armenians representatives. After entering the basilica, he proceeded to the Latin part of the complex, the Church of St. Catherine, where he venerated the relic of the holy cradle of the Child Jesus, donated to the Custody of the Holy Land by Pope Francis in 2019.
The following day, with the celebration of the first vespers of Sunday, Dec. 3, the Advent season and a new liturgical year for the Catholic Church officially began. The custos and the Franciscan friars processed into the Grotto of the Nativity, where they venerated the place where the Son of God was born as a man, now marked by a silver star.
A few steps away is the manger where Jesus was laid immediately after birth. Here, the custos lit the first candle of the Advent wreath.
The Church of St. Catherine was filled with local worshippers for the celebration of the solemn Mass of the first Sunday of Advent.
“Thank you for being the Christian presence in Bethlehem,” Patton said at the beginning of the Mass, greeting those in attendance. “We hope to see pilgrims again soon, but you are the Church of Bethlehem, the living stones.”
Two baby girls made their entrance into the Church for the first time, approximately 40 days after their birth — a tradition still observed in this land. One of them was welcomed by the custos during the offertory.
The theme of hope was the focus of the custos’ reflection during his homily.
“We need hope because the reality in which we find ourselves makes us fear for the future of our community and our families,” he said. He then referenced the word of God that had just been proclaimed:
“The prophet Isaiah reminds us that God continues to come to meet us because he loves us with all the strength and tenderness of a father. The second reading also nourishes our Christian hope because it makes us look beyond the difficulties of the present and reminds us of the ultimate destination of our arduous earthly pilgrimage, the ‘manifestation of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’”