In the past we shot the preparations surrounding the official Christmas ceremonies in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Here is a description of the festive events and their significance in Christian tradition.
Early morning on the day of Christmas Eve in the little town of Bethlehem. Final preparations for the midnight celebration are in full swing. The children of Bethlehem are practicing their drums and bagpipes in readiness for the most important event of the year. In a few hours, Manger Square, in front of the Church of the Nativity, will be filled with thousands of people from every corner of the world waiting to begin the official Christmas celebrations.
Inside the Church of the Nativity it is still quiet, but in a few hours this ancient basilica will be packed to the rafters with people singing Christmas songs and the sounds of ancient liturgies. The grotto of the Nativity, under the main building of the church, is marked by a silver star – the Star of Bethlehem.
The Christmas story begins here in Nazareth around 2,000 years ago when the angel Gabriel was sent by God unto a city of the Galilee, to a virgin and her name was Mary. “Hail, thou art highly favored, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son and shall call his name Jesus.”
And it happened here in the heart of Nazareth on the site of the Church of the Annunciation. The church is shaped like a lighthouse and is built over an ancient Crusader chapel. This Crusader chapel is built over a cave housing two Holy Pillars – the Pillar of Gabriel and the Pillar of Mary – marking the exact place of the Annunciation.
Jesus spent his youth here in the land of Zebulon and Naphtali, in the area of Nazareth. The mountains of lower Galilee, the mountains of Zebulon and Naphtali, are gentle, with softly rolling meadows filled with olive trees, fragrant shrubs, and flocks of grazing sheep. In the time of Jesus these mountains were covered with forests, and Nazareth, then a small village, was known for its carpentry.
Not far from the site of the Annunciation is another smaller church dedicated to Saint Joseph. It is built on what is believed to be the shop of a carpenter named Joseph who was engaged to Mary. This cave was part of the home and the workshop of the Holy Family. The tradition of carpentry is still kept in Nazareth today. The skill of olivewood craftsmanship is passed from father to son, from generation to generation.
The Gospel of Matthew states that when Joseph was betrothed to Mary he discovered that she was already with child. Being a just man and not wanting to make her a public example, he thought to put there away privately. But while he thought of these things behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream saying, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
At the time a decree was sent out from the Roman governor that each Jew was to register in his native land. Joseph, of the house of David, was required with Mary to the province of Judea to the town of Bethlehem.
The route from Nazareth to Bethlehem passes through the province of Samaria. This is most likely the route that Mary and Joseph took, spending time among the Samaritans, a break-away Jewish sect, here performing a ritual which has not changed since the time of the Second Temple.
The Holy Family’s final resting place, before entering Bethlehem, was Jerusalem. And it is from here, in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, that the Christian procession begins on Christmas Eve. The procession is led by the Kawass, the ceremonial policemen wearing Turkish uniforms that date back to the time of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land.
At 12:00 noon on Christmas Eve the patriarchs of the different Christian communities leave the gate of the Holy City and make their way toward Bethlehem. It is only five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. At the Monastery of Mar Elias the convoy of the shining limousine is accompanied by mounted police. Ancient tradition calls this place “Kathisma,” the place where the Virgin Mary rested on her way to Bethlehem. From here Mary and Joseph crossed the Valley of the Giants and entered Bethlehem, the city of David.
Bethlehem, usually a quiet town, becomes a dynamo of activity as the Patriarchs arrive on Christmas Eve. The clergy emerge from the church to welcome their patriarchs as his motorcade stops in Manger Square. The first to arrive is the Latin Patriarch, the representative of the Church of Rome. He arrives on December 24th. Not all of the patriarchs will arrive on the same day; some will celebrate Christmas Eve two weeks later. The procession then moves to the Church of the Nativity. At the entrance to the church the Latin Patriarch stops for a short ceremony blessing the congregation with incense and holy water. The ancient churches of the East, including the Greek Orthodox, celebrate Christmas Eve on January 6th.
The police band plays for thousands of people who fill Manger Square. Priests and nuns have come here from everywhere. Clergymen mingle with pilgrims, pilgrims with tourists. They have all come to see the ceremonies.
Here comes the Coptic Patriarch, a representative of the ancient Egyptian church which was founded by Saint Mark of Alexandria. Next, the Armenians. Christmas Eve for them is on January 18th. And here is the Archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church. The twelve main denominations represented in the Holy Land arrive here in front of the ancient church marking the place where Jesus was born. And now the bands that have been practicing since morning are playing for real as Santa Claus show up to greet the crowds.
At this time of year Bethlehem is cold and rainy. Although Bethlehem is situated on the edge of the Judean Desert snow sometimes falls during the winter months. It is then that the shepherds gather their flocks into the caves on the surrounding hills. If indeed Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem during December they would have looked for shelter in one of these caves. This cave in Shepherd’s Field resembles the manger where Joseph and Mary took refuge from the cold. A small chapel commemorates the event. Saint Luke tells us, “and she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them at the inn.” The shepherds, with their sheep in the fields around the cave sensed that something extraordinary was happening and they probably would have seen the unexpected light coming from the cave. “And the glory of the Lord shone around them and the angel said unto them, fear not for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.”
For the Protestant communities, this cave in Shepherd’s Field is the traditional place of the Nativity. On Christmas Eve they gather from around the world to celebrate this great event.
Not far to the east of Shepherd’s Field, here overlooking Bethlehem, is Mount Herodian. A spectacular fortified le built into the mountain, it served as one of King Herod’s winter palaces. It was during the rule of King Herod that Jesus was born and it is possible that if he was here in his winter retreat Herod would have see the star and wondered at its appearance over Bethlehem.
Eight days after the birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to Jerusalem, according to the Law of Moses, to be circumcised in the Temple. The Moslem Dome of the Rock is built over the Second Temple. All that remains of the Temple today is the wall, known as the Wailing Wall. It is the holiest place for the Jews. According to the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons, was the prescribed offering of the poor for the religious purification of the mother, which Mary would have brought to the door of the tabernacle inside the Temple.
Out from the East came the three Magi. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that there came wise men to Jerusalem, saying “where is he that is born King of the Jews for we have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard these things he was troubled and when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, “in Bethlehem of Judea for it is written by the prophets.”
In the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, first built by the Emperor Constantine the Great in the year 330 A.D., the Star of the Nativity designates the widely accepted place of the manager and the focal point of the Christmas celebrations. Here the Magi would have brought the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
This ancient basilica is divided by tradition among the various religious communities. All of the communities however worship in the Grotto, the cave under the main altar. The small chapel on the side marks the place where the manger stood and where the wise men visited the infant Jesus. The altar and the star in the Grotto belong to the Greek Orthodox Church but the other communities may worship here regularly. And when they do on Christmas Eve they change the clothes and decorations. The great basilica is filled with the veritable babble of the ancient liturgies, the color of ancient vestments and chants of ancient languages.
Here in the Grotto the Ethiopian Coptic Church has its turn. The Ethiopians are descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The first Ethiopian to convert to Christianity was baptized not far from Bethlehem by Phillip the Evangelist.
On Christmas Eve the square in front of the basilica is full of excitement. They have come from every part of the globe to sing carols in Manger Square. They can be heard in a dozen different languages yet united in a common note of joy.
Tonight the Anglican Church is the guest of the Greek Orthodox. Their Christmas service is held here in the courtyard of the Greek convent of the Church of the Nativity. The Anglican Church is relatively new in the Holy Land – only a hundred years old and they don’t yet have their own designated place of worship in Bethlehem. In the courtyard of their church in Bethlehem, the Monsieur Vicar of the ancient Syrian Catholic church holds a unique and fascinating ceremony. Lighting the fire on Christmas Eve has special significance. In ancient times December 24th marked the winter solstice, the time that the sun is the lowest in the sky. Lighting the fire to reawaken the sinking sun is a tradition older than Christianity. It appears in the Nords mythology as the Yule Log. The Syrian Catholic community lights the fire to symbolize the light that the birth of Jesus brought to the world.
It’s nearly midnight in Bethlehem. The patriarchs of the different communities are preparing for midnight mass. The bells of the Church of the Nativity toll midnight. Christmas Day has begun.
The Roman Catholics hold their Midnight Mass in Saint Catherine’s Chapel next door to the main basilica. Midnight Mass in Bethlehem is televised to hundreds and millions of homes around the world each year.