Christmas in Bethlehem: true peace requires rights, not concessions
the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa led midnight Mass in the place where Jesus was born. Speaking about pilgrimages, he called to “find safe ways to resume this activity, despite the pandemic”. He praised the “resilience” of Gaza’s Christian community. “I learned, in fact, that even in the most difficult situations, truly problematic ones, one can make room for love, solidarity and joy.”
Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – On Christmas Eve, when the whole world looks to Bethlehem, the place where Jesus was born, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem. Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, cries out the pain of a Palestine without peace.
“What is needed are not concessions,” he says, “but rights, and an end to years of occupation and violence, [. . .] creating new relationships in which not distrust but mutual trust reigns.”
The prelate speaks these words in his homily during the midnight Mass, which, as every year was celebrated in the Church of St Catherine, before he went down into the crypt of the Basilica of the Nativity where a star on the floor indicates the place where Jesus was born.
His words focus attention on the path for “new relationships", starting with the "resilience" of those who – even in the face of a peace "that never seems to arrive" – make room for love and solidarity, "without cultivating feelings of hatred and rancor.”
This is another year of Christmas in the Holy Land without pilgrims from around the world, after the border was closed in early December due to the Omicron variant. Yet, the atmosphere was more joyful than last year, when Bethlehem was under curfew.
Local Christians attended the midnight Mass, as did some Christians from Gaza who faced smaller hurdles by Israeli authorities. This “is a small, but important, positive sign for which I am grateful,” notes the patriarch. But the lack of pilgrims really hurts.
“We pray for them and at the same time ask for their prayers, so that all this may end soon and that the city of Bethlehem may once again be full of pilgrims, as is its characteristic. We also pray that joy may return to the many families who support themselves through pilgrimages and who, because of this pandemic, have been out of work for more than two years now and live in an increasingly difficult situation. We hope that with a joint action of politics, Church and tour operators, local and international, we can find safe ways to resume this activity, despite the pandemic. This is really necessary!”
But the heart of this night in Bethlehem is the message of Jesus' birth. To this end, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem invites us to focus on this. In fact, “To experience Christmas, it is necessary to hear the voice of God,” and “allow ourselves to be guided by the voice of his witnesses, of his messengers. In fact, there are many voices in the Gospel that speak of Jesus, but not all of them lead to Him.” This is like many situations today.
“In this time of health emergency and prolonged political emergency, many different voices are heard in families: some undermine confidence, take away hope, extinguish love; others, however, are more encouraging, capable of vision and future. What witnesses are we listening to today? In this last year, in the context of the old and new crises that have challenged us, which voice have we followed?
“In the Babylon of announcements, declarations and modern prophecies, arriving through the many media, we need to seek and find the voice that leads us to Jesus and to salvation, that opens hearts to hope. In our own lives we need trustworthy witnesses who help us find the path that leads to Bethlehem, who encourage us to see the future with confidence, who know how to see and allow us to see the good that is growing, and not only the evil and the pain, which are also present, but which cannot be our only criterion for evaluating the current situation.”
Then the prelate asks the key question of this Christmas 2021. “Which witnesses have we given our trust to? Because, after all, this is what we need [to do, i.e.,] rebuild trust among us, trust in the future, ours and our children's, trust in the possibility of a change for the better, both in civil life and in the Church.”
This question applies first of all to the Church. From Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, Archbishop Pizzaballa talks about what he heard this year in the countries that fall within the jurisdiction of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The first voice heard is that of Pope Francis in Cyprus, a country also divided by walls, marked by power struggles, and huge interests for its energy resources, an island where thousands of people have sought refuge but with little prospects for their future.
Here “Francis reminded us of the meaning of patience, which does not mean remaining inert, but being available to the unpredictable action of the Holy Spirit, using our time to appreciate listening, and welcoming those who are not like us.”
The patriarch then mentions Jordan, which this year celebrated the centennial of the founding of the Hashemite Kingdom, a “State, though marked by so many difficulties, [that] still teaches first world countries what solidarity and welcome are. In these times of political and religious sectarianism, moreover, Jordan is not afraid to engage in religious and political dialogue”.
For Israel, it has been the year of increasingly troubling voices preaching division in society, as evinced by the latest war in Gaza last May. “I say this especially in reference to the crisis of trust especially between Arabs and Jews, both citizens, both inhabitants of the same cities. This reminds us that a passive approach to coexistence is not enough, coexistence must be promoted.”
In this area, the Church has a precise task. “There is no lack in the country of voices of people, movements, associations committed to the promotion of coexistence, respect and mutual welcome. Christmas is also about recognizing and appreciating those who know how to see the other as a gift from God.”
Next the Church of the Holy Land heard the sound of “deafening cry” of pain from the people of Palestine, “always waiting for a future of peace that seems never to arrive”, a “people that needs to experience justice, that wants to know freedom, that is tired of waiting to be allowed to live freely and with dignity in its own land and in its own house, that does not want to live only by the permits that are now necessary to enter, leave, work or other. What is needed are not concessions, but rights, and an end to years of occupation and violence, with all their dramatic consequences on the life of each individual and the community at large, creating new relationships in which not distrust but mutual trust reigns.”
Despite this cry of pain, some voices of hope can be heard. For the patriarch, heard right here “what the word ‘resilience’ concretely consists of. Visiting our community in Gaza a few days ago, I learned, in fact, that even in the most difficult situations, truly problematic ones, one can make room for love, solidarity and joy.
“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”, people who are building “the Kingdom of God in our midst and that every day, not only today, they live the true spirit of Christmas”.
This is exactly what is announced on this night in Bethlehem. “It is true, evil never ceases to rage on the lives of the weakest and most defenseless, but the road to peace is marked, and it is still our road today. In that Child is the Love that enters the world, that remains in every moment of history, that is an endless adventure and can truly change everything.”
Such an announcement always awaits a personal response. “As then, so today, God not only works directly in the world, but He also does so through our participation” so that “we can find in Him the meaning of our action. For we are witnesses that when Jesus is at the center of our lives, the earth receives Peace” in Bethlehem and in every corner of the world.